In Winter's Brutal Grip, The Power Grid Buckles


We’re not out of the woods yet, utility chief Buddy Hasten said early last week.

It turned out trees were toppling all around, some literally.

The regional electric grid was stretched to the limit and beyond, and Arkansans joined Texans, Oklahomans and Missourians sitting in their darkened houses, getting chillier.

Hasten, the lively CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., was working the room via Zoom on Tuesday before Little Rock Rotarians, and he was a bit too optimistic on the chances of forced blackouts.

But he was speaking early in a shifting crisis, along with Entergy Arkansas’ Kurt Castleberry, describing an “unprecedented” electric emergency driven by a week of relentless polar cold and raging multistate snowstorms.

Thank goodness Arkansas’ targeted outages have not become outrages: Some Texans endured 20 hours and more without power, icicles forming in their homes.

Our neighbor to the southwest, as it happens, has its own independent electric grid built on the bad assumption that peak loads always come in summer.

But natives of these latitudes can testify that brutal winter weather strikes with a vengeance here every 10 or 15 years.

The Texas shutdowns became political fodder, with frozen wind turbines becoming the stuff on internet memes. In truth, the cold crippled all types of power plants, including coal and nuclear generators, and Texas’ natural gas-fired plants were most affected.

Hasten and Castleberry were joined in a roundtable discussion — what better for Rotarians? — by CEO Josh Davenport of Seal Solar in North Little Rock and Matt Bell, partner in Little Rock renewable energy and efficiency contractor Entegrity. I moderated the discussion, which pondered solar power in Arkansas.

But the power emergency loomed over all. Southwest Power Pool, one of two regional transmission organizations with headquarters in Little Rock, issued a Level 3 Energy Emergency for the first time in its 80-year history last Monday. Its counterpart, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, also issued alerts and instituted rolling blackouts in Texas.

Hasten, who runs the statewide power cooperative that provides wholesale electricity to Arkansas’ 17 distribution cooperatives, reported that their peak load on Monday was an all-time high.

With temperatures in Little Rock making Anchorage look “tropical,” Hasten and Castleberry said their companies first turned to big industrial customers — like Mississippi County’s Nucor Steel and Big River Steel — whose contracts give them reduced rates in return for permission to shut them off in crises. “These customers allow their service to be interrupted,” Hasten said.

Those power savings, plus a slightly eased load from ordinary customers heeding requests for power conservation, were expected to keep the co-ops and Entergy from having to cut off homes.

That was overly optimistic.

“This has been unprecedented in terms of temperatures,” said Castleberry, who spoke even as forecasters predicted more snow on top of the 6-to-11 inches on the ground at the start of last week.

The sun came out bright on Tuesday, and Hasten thought moderating temperatures would help. He also said the co-ops are sun-friendly, acknowledging Today’s Power, a subsidiary thriving as an installer of small utility-scale solar projects for local co-ops and other businesses, and co-op involvement in a major solar project in Ashley County. “We’re big supporters of renewable energy,” he said.

The 100-MW Crossett Solar Energy Farm is expected to bring 700 construction jobs to Ashley County, though a completion date has been pushed back to 2022, Hasten said. Work is proceeding south of Crossett on Highway 133. The co-ops commissioned the project through a power purchase agreement with Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. of Broomfield, Colorado.

Hasten agreed with Davenport that battery storage is booming, but with the grid creaking, he said big power sources are indispensable.

A submariner and 20-year engineer in the nuclear Navy before his co-op career, Hasten has been more resistant than some to giving up coal as a fuel source. The state’s co-ops derived about a quarter of their power from coal last year, and Hasten noted that co-ops are frugal and tend to hang onto assets.

“Greener energy has some intermittency problems,” he said. “The real question staring everybody in the face this morning is how to keep the system reliable 24 hours a day.”