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First rolling blackouts hit Nebraska as power use surges in cold snap; conserve to avoid more  

Another factor is decreased production of wind power throughout the 17 states, including Nebraska, where OPPD’s Burke said the utility was getting about 100 megawatts of wind power instead of its usual 1,000 because of a lack of wind. Many have argued that the shift in recent years toward renewable energy sources like solar and wind power risked making electrical systems more vulnerable to swings in temperature.

Credit:  Aaron Sanderford | Omaha World-Herald | Feb 15, 2021 | omaha.com ~~

Get a blanket and some warm clothes, Nebraska. The first rolling blackouts because of this week’s bitter cold have hit Nebraska.

Omaha and Lincoln utilities put in place what they called planned outages Monday afternoon, and more might be coming if people don’t take steps to conserve power.

The 17-state Southwest Power Pool, of which Nebraska utilities are members, announced at midday Monday that its members, stretching from North Dakota to Texas, were using more power than the combined utilities were producing and had tapped as much as they could from available reserve supplies. Texas was the first state to start the rolling blackouts. Millions there were without power.

“In our history as a grid operator, this is an unprecedented event and marks the first time SPP has ever had to call for controlled interruptions of service,” said Lanny Nickell, SPP’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “

By mid-Monday afternoon, the power pool said it was producing enough power to meet demand, but that the situation could change based on conditions.

Omaha Public Power District President and Chief Executive Officer Tim Burke told The World-Herald that a brief outage in Bellevue at midday Monday was the first and only planned outage locally. If more such outages are needed, OPPD said each would last about an hour.

The Lincoln Electric System said in a mid-afternoon press release that it had gone through two cycles of rolling blackouts and had not yet received additional requests from the regional power pool. LES said more might come without warning over the next 36 hours.

The Nebraska Public Power District also warned about the possibility of rolling blackouts for its statewide customer base. NPPD said it had not yet started any planned outages, but spokesman Mark Becker said the utility is prepared to do so if needed.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Becker said. “Our customers across the state are going to have to understand they may get a 30-minute blackout without notice.”

Electric utilities serving Nebraska’s Dixon and Custer Counties have been warned to prepare for possible rolling blackouts. Dixon County Sheriff Don Taylor said in a press release that people should keep their cellphones charged, as the blackouts could affect landline telephones.

Local utilities in the regional power pool have little say when the pool tells them to use less power. When that happens, OPPD officials say power is shut off to part of their grid. OPPD said it would try to rotate any outages, so no single part of the city bears the brunt of the outages.

As of about 1:30 p.m. Monday, OPPD was producing about 100 megawatts more power than its customers were using. But Burke said that if a power plant trips off somewhere in the regional power pool, “we may be asking customers to go through (more) planned outages.”

Through the peak period Monday evening, OPPD didn’t report any additional outages, but utility leaders remained worried about the peak period from 6 to 10 a.m. Tuesday, when temperatures in Nebraska are expected to drop to the negative teens.

OPPD, Metropolitan Utilities District, LES and NPPD all are asking people to turn down their thermostats by 2 to 4 degrees.

Furnaces matter to peak electricity usage, even if they use natural gas, because the blowers that distribute the heat from burning natural gas rank among the home appliances that use the most power, utility officials said. Washing machines, dryers and dishwashers use a lot, too, which is why officials recommend people wait a day or two before washing their next loads.

“I think we’re in a pretty good spot, thanks to the diligent work of a lot of people,” said Craig Moody, a member of the OPPD board who tweeted about possible blackouts. “But we need to keep our eyes on the prize, and our customer owners are going to play a key role.”

Moody, who runs a business that helps companies conserve energy, said his family spent much of the weekend with their thermostat set at 64 degrees, chilly but livable. He said he hopes people will find a lower temperature they can handle.

MUD President Mark Doyle said Omaha’s natural gas and water utility is operating at full capacity on the gas side, including using its liquefied natural gas and propane conversion backup plants to boost peak supplies of heating fuel. MUD customers broke a record for natural gas usage, set in 2019, on Sunday. The utility says that new record could be eclipsed Monday and Tuesday.

MUD is not yet concerned about natural gas supplies, he said, but the utility and its suppliers are watching increased demand.

Doyle said one thing that should ease some load on the gas system is Omaha Public Schools’ decision to shift to remote learning Tuesday because of the ability to keep OPS facilities cooler than normal.

Part of what’s driving higher demand is how far south into the midsection of the country the jet steam is reaching with colder temperatures.

About 30 of the nation’s 50 states are seeing temperatures sharply below normal. Some, like Texas and Oklahoma, are seeing once-in-a-generation drops, including temperatures in the teens along the Mexican border and below-zero temperatures in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Temperatures in Texas and Oklahoma matter because they’re among the region’s largest producers of natural gas, which is used to make electricity and in people’s furnaces. Those states are typically warm enough that they don’t need as much natural gas for heating as other states in the pool.

The cold snap has turned utilities in Texas and Oklahoma into customers competing for natural gas, and it has made extracting natural gas more difficult in places like the Texas Panhandle, Burke said. That raises prices on limited supplies.

Another factor is decreased production of wind power throughout the 17 states, including Nebraska, where OPPD’s Burke said the utility was getting about 100 megawatts of wind power instead of its usual 1,000 because of a lack of wind.

Many have argued that the shift in recent years toward renewable energy sources like solar and wind power risked making electrical systems more vulnerable to swings in temperature.

OPPD, for instance, closed its Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station in 2016, after paying to rebuild it following the 2011 floods. The utility has committed to reducing its carbon footprint by shifting more of its power generation from coal to natural gas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and officials with OPPD and other local utilities blamed problems with the power system on freezing temperatures that are making it harder to produce fuel and electricity in the 17-state region.

OPPD spokeswoman Jodi Baker said the utility still maintains baseline power generation using primarily natural gas and coal.

“This is not about our specific mix of generation,” she said.

Source:  Aaron Sanderford | Omaha World-Herald | Feb 15, 2021 | omaha.com

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