Update: SPP Joins MISO in Directing Utilities to Start Controlled Blackouts

Update: SPP Joins MISO in Directing Utilities to Start Controlled Blackouts

Update: Feb. 16, 2021: Power to cut to two Arkansas steel giants as utilities seek to ease demand.

Original story:

Both of Little Rock's regional transmission organizations for the electric grid have warned member utilities to begin controlled interruptions in service to prevent uncontrolled power outages in "unprecedented" extreme winter weather.

One of the two, Southwest Power Pool, took the emergency action just after noon Monday for the first time in its history, it said, as sustained polar temperatures and a raging snowstorm drove power consumption past peak capacity. The other nonprofit grid manager with headquarters in Little Rock, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, had already sanctioned controlled outages in southeast Texas in Monday's early morning hours.

The moves by SPP and MISO came after both declared Level 3 Energy Emergencies, the most severe category under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission due to unparalelled power demand across their respective footprints in the mid-United States. SPP, which manages the electric grid and power markets in 14 states, said in a statement posted about 12:30 p.m. that it had directed utilities to employ blackouts after exhausting all available reserve energy. The nonprofit transmission organization said that was a first in its 80-year history; 11 utilities joined to create the organization at the dawn of World War II.

"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," Lanny Nickell, SPP's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a news release. "It's a last resort that we understand puts a burden on our member utilities and the customers they serve, but it's a step we're consciously taking to prevent circumstances from getting worse, which could result in uncontrolled outages of even greater magnitude."

Utilities are asking customers to turn off lights, delay using dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, and electric water heaters. Southwest Electric Power Co. of Shreveport, an SPP affiliate that serves a swath of western Arkansas, warned its customers to be prepared for controlled blackouts. So did the state's electric distribution cooperatives.

SPP said it instructed members' transmission system operators to reduce electricity demand "by an amount needed to prevent further uncontrolled outages." Individual utilities will determine how best to curtail their use based on their own emergency operating plans, it said.

MISO, which handles the grid  in 15 states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, has its South Region headquarters in Little Rock. It coordinated with members to employ the southeast Texas blackouts in regions that would best reinforce the grid, the company said.

"We fully committed every available operating asset before the event to lessen the impact on our system, but conditions eventually deteriorated to a point where demand exceeded supply," said Renuka Chatterjee, MISO's executive director of system operations. "The accelerated change in conditions led us to our last resort in order to maintain grid reliability, and we are in direct communication with our members to support their restoration efforts in the affected areas."

MISO and its members focused on the expected load demand and expert weather forecasts, as well as the risks associated with generation availability and transmission capacity across the region, officials said in a news release.

"This was truly a coordinated effort with all of our members to avoid a potentially larger grid outage," said Daryl Brown, executive director of the South Region. "We are in direct communication with our members in the affected area to support their restoration efforts."

Also Monday, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas asked its members to "immediately limit the use of electric service through the next 24 hours to ensure that members will continue to receive at least a minimum of electric service." 

Andrew Lachowsky, vice president of planning and market operations for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, said in a statement that rolling electrical outages are possible "unless electric consumption is reduced immediately." He said Arkansas electric cooperatives and other regional utilities have reached a point where demand for electricity has exceeded the supply.

"The western part of Arkansas is particularly impacted at the current time, and it is possible conditions may worsen statewide," the co-op said. 

"This is an unprecedented time, and we urge electric cooperative members to immediately reduce the use of electrical requirements by turning off or not using non-essential lights and electric appliances, especially electric water heaters, clothes dryers, and dishwashers and to turn heating thermostats to lower settings," Lachowsky said.