Arkansas Power Officials Look to Texas, Count Blessings

The Southwest Power Pool crisis coordination center in Little Rock was a key hub in February, when cold weather overwhelmed the Texas grid.
The Southwest Power Pool crisis coordination center in Little Rock was a key hub in February, when cold weather overwhelmed the Texas grid.

If anyone doubted that the electrical grid is a vital part of the U.S. infrastructure, winter delivered a bitterly cold reminder in mid-February: A deadly winter storm with record lows overwhelmed Texas’ power supply and left some regions dark for days.

The grid crisis, experienced mildly in Arkansas in the form of brief rolling blackouts, killed between 111 and 200 Texans, according to public safety agencies, including some people who froze to death without heat. Others died in accidents, or after medical equipment lost power in the blackout.

A future disruption of such severity appears far less likely in Arkansas, home to two vast regional transmission organizations with far more options to import power than Texas had.

Top officials at Southwest Power Pool and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, both with operation centers in Little Rock, said that while they can never say never, they don’t expect a similar event here, where the grid is more regulated and generation sources more diversified.

The entire Texas power grid came within minutes of catastrophic failure, according to top officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which runs the state’s largely independent grid with little federal oversight. In Texas, a market-based system has prevailed since 1999, when then-Gov. George W. Bush signed a popular deregulation law largely giving grid control to private companies and energy retailers.

As that system teetered on the brink of collapse nearly five months ago, officials employed rotating blackouts to cut peak loads and prevent more permanent damage to overloaded transmission and distribution systems.

And while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott insists all problems have been addressed, Texans were urged to cut power use to avoid rotating blackouts as recently as a heat wave last month, and critics say far more needs to be done.

“Fundamental problem: We didn’t sufficiently winterize our gas system or power system,” said Michael Webber, the Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin. “Gas production and distribution froze up badly, which cut off gas to power plants. Power plants also froze up, so it was a cascading problem.”

The issues haven’t been addressed sufficiently, Webber told Arkansas Business by email, “but it seems like we’re taking baby steps.”

Different Risk Profiles

Barbara Sugg, president and chief executive officer of Southwest Power Pool, said Arkansas electricity customers are better situated “largely because we’re so well connected to the Eastern Interconnection,” one of the two major alternating-current electrical grids in North America. SPP, which like MISO lies between the Eastern and Western interconnections, manages the grid and power markets across 60,000 miles of transmission lines in 14 states, including a slice of western Arkansas.

“We don’t have the types of limitations to receive energy that ERCOT does. ERCOT has the ability to import a little over 800 megawatts from us, just because of the way they are connected to us,” Sugg continued. “Whereas we had the ability during this particular event to import over 6,000 megawatts from the east, some from as far away as the East Coast. That changes the risk profile quite a bit.”

Daryl Brown, executive director of external affairs for MISO’s South Region, echoed that assessment. “Unlike Texas, Arkansas is part of the Eastern Interconnection,” he said, “and two regional transmission organizations serve the state, MISO and SPP. Both are able to support each other, along with our RTO neighbors to our east, to ensure reliability during events like this.”

He added that MISO is focused on long-range planning “to add new transmission capacity to the system and improve interregional coordination and interconnection,” something he expects to bring significant improvement to grid reliability.

Even though SPP serves parts of Texas beyond ERCOT’s zone, it was forced to implement rotating blackouts in its footprint only twice in the cold crunch, Sugg said. For details, she turned to Chief Operating Officer Lanny Nickell, who said SPP was finalizing a study of what happened and will present priority recommendations to its board of directors this month.

“It’s not something we want to ever see happen again, but we know that there’s always a possibility,” Nickell said. “You can’t control the weather. But we were able to control how we respond, and I think we did a lot well. … There were times when we were importing up to 6,000 megawatts of energy into our 14-state region.” For comparison’s sake, SPP’s total accredited capacity over its footprint is 64,000 megawatts.

Nickell noted that SPP’s region covers a “fairly small sliver” of western Arkansas, “but our neighboring regional transmission organization, MISO, serves the majority of the rest of Arkansas, and they helped us by delivering excess energy that they had.”

Kurt Castleberry, vice president and director of resource management at Entergy Arkansas, says the state has transmission and fuel diversity advantages over Texas, where the power grid came within minutes of collapse in February.
Kurt Castleberry, vice president and director of resource management at Entergy Arkansas, says the state has transmission and fuel diversity advantages over Texas, where the power grid came within minutes of collapse in February. (Kerry Prichard)

Limited Blackouts

SPP and MISO, whose members include transmission owners through the Midwest and South and into Canada, largely managed to avoid blackouts to curtail unsustainable power loads during February’s crisis. They began warning member utilities that a generation crunch was coming several days in advance, and on Feb. 14 asked utilities to issue calls for power conservation.

“Despite that, on Monday, Feb. 15, we had to curtail what amounted to about 1.6% of our demand for about an hour,” SPP’s Nickell said. “Then on Tuesday, Feb. 16, we had to curtail about 6.5% of our demand for a little over three hours.”

He said those outages were distributed over the organization’s 14-state footprint, and that he had no way of knowing how many Arkansans were without power during those two time windows.

Kurt Castleberry of investor-owned Entergy Arkansas, the state’s largest utility with more than 715,000 residential and commercial customers, said significant recent investments in its transmission system have helped make Arkansas’ power network “more reliable and resilient,” strengthening the system and helping to withstand extreme challenges.”

Sugg and Nickell agreed that transmission issues played a smaller part in the crisis, and they hope that transmission organizations get a seat at the table in setting priorities for President Joe Biden’s national infrastructure plans. But overwhelmed power generation sources primarily fueled the Texas catastrophe, they said.

“It was a generation issue for us, primarily, with a lack of natural gas availability to our gas generators that normally are available to us, particularly in the summer, when our loads are the highest,” Sugg said. “In the winter, there’s a lot more competition for natural gas. People use it to heat their homes, for example. And the scarcity of it, coupled with the astronomical prices, made it difficult for our gas [powered] generating plants to run. So at the end of the day, we lacked the generation that we needed.”

Webber, the UT professor, said the Texas system’s “lax reliability standards” did not help. “Also, the gas industry in Texas is very powerful and fights aggressively against regulations that require more reliable performance,” he said. “Instead, they blame wind turbines, out-of-state politicians, future policies like the Green New Deal, etc.”

Sugg and Nickell said one potential SPP response might be setting a reserve capacity requirement for winter and other seasons similar to the excess generation now established for summer, when SPP keeps a 23% generation capacity beyond expected peaks.

Long-Range Plans

MISO, in a review titled “The February Arctic Event,” found a need for more winter generation options and promised to coordinate with members to improve winterization of generators and fuel supplies. In winter, many wind generation resources are offline, and some gas-fired generators froze up during February’s crisis. MISO also found that while it had adequate electricity during the event, “transmission constraints and congestion hindered the ability to move energy to areas that needed it most.”

Brown, the MISO executive, said his organization was still working through more than a dozen specific lessons from February’s freeze, and making changes. “For example, we plan to work with our members to increase comprehensive drills for extreme events, including operations, planned outage coordination, emergency load reduction planning, communications and regulatory coordination.”

Lanny Nickell

Nickell said SPP “will make sure in the future to understand better what types of generation are going to be available. It might be that we have to start looking at other sources of winter generation. Collaboration and coordination are essential.”

In reviewing the lessons of February’s failures, Professor Webber also suggested looking forward. “We should build our energy system for the weather of the future instead of the weather of the past. We should require the gas system and the power system to winterize or meet minimum reliability standards, and we should consider other technologies like storage, demand response, energy efficiency, and connecting to the other grids.”