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Rolling blackouts lifted at least for the moment

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

Local utilities enacted rolling blackouts again Tuesday morning as the extreme cold weather across the central plains continued to drive up demand for power. 

Then at mid-morning, utilities were told they could end the blackouts at least for now.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the city of Independence got word that blackouts were being suspended. Independence Power & Light Director Jim Nail said the city utility received that notice from Southwest Power Pool, the city’s power broker that handles grids across parts of 17 states. 

The rolling blackouts, which lasted for less than two hours Monday, started about 7 a.m. Tuesday. IPL said about 29,000 customers – a little more than half of the utility’s customers – went without power at some point Tuesday morning. About 4,500 customers had a temporary power outage of 20 to 30 minutes Monday.

“Hopefully that’s it for today,” Nail said, as the morning had been the expected peak stress time for grids, due to a couple power plants in Iowa and Oklahoma going off-line overnight. 

Evergy said it received the same notice from Southwest Power Pool at 10:15 a.m., though its blackouts had been forecast to be up to 90 minutes in some cases. About 60,000 of its Missouri customers went without power on Monday, and Tuesday morning saw those numbers climb toward 100,000.

As to whether more blackouts could happen Wednesday, “We’ll just have to watch,” Nail said. “The system is still strained.”

State and many local government offices, as well as other facilities, are closed Tuesday at least in part to conserve energy.

Nail said the rolling blackouts are designed to avoid massive power failures that affect far more people far longer, such as the situation in parts of Texas.

“When demand exceeds the generation available, it stresses the system, affecting voltage and frequency control,” Nail said. 

IPL has protections for its electric grid – designed to trip when either frequency or voltage in an area go beyond the operating limits because of that stress, Nail explained. But the longer that imbalance continues, the greater chance multiple areas will trip, and if portions of the system trip, some generating resources get isolated, and that compounds the frequency and voltage issues.

In the worst-case scenario, he said, that issue “cascades” across the system, leading to wide-scale blackouts.

“By selectively dropping a small portion of each utility's individual load,” Nail said, “we match demand to generation and protect everyone.” 

The trade-off to avoiding an extended large-scale outage, and being able to obtain most of its power at the cheapest prices with its SPP membership, Nail said, is “We all share the pain together.”

Chuck Caisley, Evergy senior vice president and chief customer officer, said Tuesday morning his utility had enough power for its own use, but the imbalance between generation and demand elsewhere had stressed SPP’s grid and supply lines. Transmission lines that in some cases run through the metro area were jammed early Tuesday, similar to a highway with massive vehicular traffic.

SPP said Monday was the first time in the history of the co-op that it had declared a Level 3 emergency with the grid, leading to rolling blackouts. Tuesday morning, with lowest temperatures yet in places and higher demand with people returning to work after a holiday Monday, marked the second time for a Level 3. 

Among the steps officials say power customers can take to help reduce electrical usage:

• Turn thermostats a little cooler (65-68 degrees). Avoid the use of electric space heaters.

• Close blinds and shades to reduce heat lost through windows.

• Change or clean filters on furnaces.

• Turn off unnecessary lights and appliances in your home.

• When possible, use large appliances (clothes washers, dryers and dishwashers) between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

• Reduce air leaks by sealing around doors and windows with weatherstripping or caulk and inserting foam gaskets on electrical switches and outlets.

• Businesses should reduce the use of electric lighting and electricity-consuming equipment as much as possible.

• Large consumers of electricity should consider shutting down or reducing non-essential processes.