OKLAHOMA CITY — Utility officials are warning Oklahomans that unprecedented rolling power outages may not be finished if electricity and natural gas usage continues to exceed supply amid lingering single-digit and sub-zero temperatures.
Monday morning, the Southwest Power Pool announced that it had exhausted its available reserve energy and was directing its member utilities in the Midwest to implement controlled interruptions of service — or brownouts — to prevent widespread, uncontrolled outages.
But after requiring members to implement the outages across Oklahoma, the Southwest Power Pool on Monday afternoon abruptly reversed course and said its member utilities could stop the interruptions, and they said energy conversation efforts helped shore up the overwhelmed infrastructure. But utility officials warned that additional rolling power outages are still possible if those energy-saving efforts don’t continue.
“It’s a very fluid situation,” said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities.
With snow-covered roads and many businesses shuttered due to weather, many Oklahomans spent Monday hunkered down inside their homes. Temperatures weren’t expected to top 4 degrees in Oklahoma City. Lows of minus 5 were expected.
Pretty much the entire state in some ways gets power through the grid operated by the Southwest Power Pool, even if indirectly, he said.
Skinner said part of what makes the ongoing weather event unprecedented is that it impacts an entire region, including Oklahoma. Unlike past weather events, it is not isolated to Oklahoma or a small locale.
Also, while Oklahoma has a “very robust infrastructure,” it has its limits, he said. "This is something that the system is not designed for. It can keep up, but we have an entire region in the deep freeze right now.”
Skinner said it’s not necessarily an issue with natural gas supply. There is plenty of that nationwide.
“The issue is trying to get supply in a region where everybody needs more and more gas all at once,” he said. “And then more importantly, getting it through the infrastructure which can only handle so much.”
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Oklahoma has lost most of its wind production power because of the freeze. In Oklahoma, the state’s electric power producers rely heavily on natural gas or wind, said Skinner.
But with the frigid temperatures leaving many wind turbines inoperable, providers have had to instead rely on natural gas to generate electricity, Skinner said.
Many Oklahomans, meanwhile, also rely on natural gas to heat their homes and businesses. Everyone needs more natural gas right now than normal, which has created demand for heat because of the cold, Skinner said.
“The entire region has been smacked very, very hard,” he said.
As of Monday afternoon, some wind turbines were going back on line, he said, but temperatures likely need to get above freezing in order to alleviate much of the pressure that is being put on the power grid.
Temperatures aren’t supposed to be above freezing until Friday in much of Oklahoma, according to the National Weather Service in Norman.
Skinner said no one should take steps that put them in danger in the cold, but officials continue to ask people to consider cutting back just a couple of degrees on their thermostats and watch electrical use carefully to help take the strain off the infrastructure.
“It’s an unprecedented event with unprecedented demand,” he said.
Individual utilities in Oklahoma were told to figure out how to implement the rolling power outages.
Oklahoma’s PSO, which serves nearly 562,000 customers in eastern and southwest Oklahoma, started implementing controlled, rolling outages just after noon Monday.
Nearly 11,000 customers lost power for about an hour in an effort to reduce the load by about 44 megawatts, said Stan Whiteford, a spokesman for utility.
It was the first time in company history that they’ve had to implement such outages, Whiteford said.
OG&E, the state’s largest electric utility, did not respond to a request for comment as of deadline, but had said it planned “short-term controlled interruptions” that they warned may continue through mid-week.
State health officials, meanwhile, said they were taking steps to protect Oklahoma’s limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine, which cannot be thawed until just before it’s ready for use.
“Our vaccine is managed through a combination of temperature monitoring systems and back-up generators,” said Keith Reed, deputy commissioner of health. “In situations of power outages, where a backup generator is not available, vaccine is quickly moved to a secondary site. Should a temperature excursion occur that results in decreased shelf life of the vaccine, we will prioritize that vaccine for rapid administration in upcoming clinics.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.