Cold Rings a Bell and Sounds an Alarm

Cold Rings a Bell and Sounds an Alarm
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has set up a new state Energy Resources Council which will apply lessons learned from the 2021 Texas winter storm to avert any grid meltdown in Arkansas.

After Christmas set a record of 78 degrees in Little Rock, winter barged into Arkansas with the new year. And it came just after a cold snap cut production in Texas’ natural gas fields by 25%.

Jan. 2 saw the sharpest drop in daily gas production in Texas since last February’s killer storm overwhelmed its electrical grid with ice and polar temperatures. Soaring electricity demand brought the Texas grid within seconds of total collapse, leading to wide blackouts and, later, astronomical heating bills.

Texas recently raised the freeze’s final death toll to 246, ranking it as one of the worst natural disasters in state history.

Last year’s gas and grid shortcomings echoed this month: Instruments froze, output plunged, and burn-offs spewed greenhouse gases into the sky.

While this year’s effects haven’t been as dramatic, the production plunge raised eyebrows in an industry under intense pressure to adapt to climate-driven weather extremes. Natural gas fuels about a third of the nation’s electricity generation.

It also drew attention to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s efforts to avert any grid meltdown here, where utility customers experienced the 2021 event in the form of brief rolling blackouts. Hutchinson signed executive orders before Christmas to help earmark federal infrastructure money, coordinate the state’s executive branch and create a state Energy Resources Council of utility experts, state officials and other stakeholders. Among its members are utility players like Entergy Arkansas CEO Laura Landreaux and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. CEO Buddy Hasten.

One goal was better planning during extreme weather and “other emergencies that threaten the state’s power and communications grids,” Hutchinson said. “The Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee will recommend how to best use our portion of the federal money.”

The infrastructure panel, separate from the Energy Resources Council, will be led by Arkansas Energy & Environment Secretary Becky Keogh. Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor and state Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth will also be on the panel. They will review the $4 billion the state expects to receive under the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in November, and suggest priorities.

Arkansas electricity providers were supportive. “The state report acknowledges that despite the challenges presented by the February 2021 weather event, Entergy Arkansas was able to provide reliable service,” EAI spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle said. Customers experienced “limited service interruptions,” and Entergy responded with investments in generation, transmission and distribution facilities, she said. “Our Formula Rate Plan provided us with the financial resources necessary to make the required investments while maintaining low, stable rates.”

A diverse electricity generation portfolio including nuclear, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric and solar power is crucial, Hinkle said. “Unlike most of Texas, Entergy and the other electric utilities in Arkansas participate in the MISO and Southwest Power Pool regional transmission organizations and have the benefit of interconnection with other utilities.”

Spokesman Rob Roedel of the AECC said its 17 member cooperatives, which serve about 1.2 million homes and businesses in the state, appreciated the dedication of the energy task force, which he expects “to create proactive, long-term solutions to the reliability issues.”

Part of the plan was to make sure that state leaders are all singing from the same hymnal. Hutchinson’s announcement outlined a path forward more reliant on coordination than on major infrastructure, generation and transmission improvements. Those costly changes, many experts believe, are long overdue.

Roedel said the cooperatives appreciate a chance for better communication during bad weather. “AECC will continue to work with state and federal officials to protect electric cooperative members from adverse impacts on reliability and rate affordability by advocating for policies that will continue to ensure access to reliable and affordable generation and transmission resources.”

He said the AECC re-examined its own internal power generation and delivery processes, making several adjustments.

The AECC has also increased transmission construction, Roedel said. “Investment in AECC transmission assets increased from $136 million to $264 million between 2017 and 2020, a 93 percent increase,” Roedel said. “Internal calculations on generation fleet operations, power delivery and transmission investments are part of AECC’s continued long-range plans for reliability.”