Gov. Pete Ricketts called this week’s rolling blackouts “utterly unacceptable” and said Wednesday that the country needs to have a proper energy mix that isn’t overly reliant on wind or natural gas sources.
“This is the United States of America. We are not some developing nation who has an unreliable power grid,” he said during a press conference.
Ricketts’ comments came as utility crews across the U.S. worked to restore power Wednesday to nearly 3.4 million customers still without electricity in the aftermath of a winter storm.
Failures in natural gas, coal and nuclear energy systems were responsible for nearly twice as many outages as frozen wind turbines and solar panels, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, said in a press conference Tuesday.
Nebraska experienced scattered blackouts Monday and Tuesday as frigid temperatures throughout the Midwest caused demand for power to outweigh the supply of the Southwest Power Pool. The power pool is made up of utilities from 17 states, including the Nebraska Public Power District, Omaha Public Power District and Lincoln Electric System.
As of early Wednesday afternoon, the power pool had reduced its emergency to the lowest alert level, meaning it had sufficient power generation to meet demand. While it continued to urge people to conserve power, the reduction in the alert level made more rolling blackouts unlikely.
The regional energy consortium said it reached a peak energy usage of 38,600 megawatts at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, a level that was considerably lower than the peaks reached Monday and Tuesday, days when it required its members to shut off power for short periods of time.
NPPD said late Wednesday morning that it was able to avoid further service disruptions, despite an earlier announcement that more rolling blackouts were expected during the day. On Tuesday, NPPD reported about two hours of planned outages.
Tom Kent, president and CEO of NPPD, said at a press conference Wednesday that it did not move to Level 3, the highest alert level, as was expected earlier in the morning.
“That’s good, that’s a really good thing, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Kent said.
NPPD, the largest electric utility in the state, covers all or parts of 87 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
We have been able to avoid service interruptions this morning, but things may change quickly. SPP is currently at a level 2. The next couple of hours are critical & we will keep you informed if things change. We appreciate our customers’ efforts to continue conserving energy. pic.twitter.com/R5v90KLUBz— NPPD (@NPPDnews) February 17, 2021
Kent said NPPD has a “very balanced resource mix,” with 59% coal, 30% nuclear, 8% oil and gas and 2.3% wind with a little bit of hydro and solar power. He expected that the industry will learn many lessons from this unusual cold event about how to better balance issues of cost, reliability and environmental concerns with various power sources to create the best mix for customers.
In response to Ricketts’ comments, Kent agreed that rolling outages are not ideal, but said they were done to prevent larger and longer outages.
“It is a necessary step if the system gets out of balance,” Kent said. “Had this step not been taken ... we could have seen a much larger, widespread, uncontrolled blackout, and that would be utterly unacceptable.”
Kent said major disruptions with fossil fuel power plants in the South, such as frozen coal and natural gas, greatly contributed to the power problem. He said NPPD’s generators are designed to operate in cold conditions and didn’t have problems. The utility company even used a Lexington power plant to add more energy to the grid — that location hadn’t been online since the summer of 2012.
It’s true that NPPD’s wind turbines produced less power this week, but Kent said that was not the only issue.
NPPD spokesperson Mark Becker said that with little wind blowing on Monday, the turbines produced 14 megawatts, compared to 480 megawatts at 100% capacity. On Wednesday morning, that rose to 105 megawatts, he said.
Ricketts said Nebraska is able to generate more energy than is consumed, because of the state’s mix of power sources, but that all areas of the larger power pool must work.
“While we may be doing it right here in Nebraska, clearly we have become too dependent on intermittent sources of energy or sources of energy that you cannot store on site, and that’s why we’re having problems being able to meet the energy demands.”
Ricketts said more energy problems could come if the nation adopts certain policies aimed at addressing climate change.
“You can just imagine if radical environmentalists get their way to pass the clean power plan or the Green New Deal, that these situations will become even more dire,” Ricketts said. Coal and nuclear power offer “great reliability” compared to renewable sources, because they can store energy on site.
Scientists agree that human activities are expanding the greenhouse effect, which is when the Earth’s atmosphere traps heat from various greenhouse gases. Because of that, NASA says, Earth’s temperature has increased — leading to climate change events such as droughts, floods and extreme temperatures.
But Ricketts said the idea that greenhouse gases are causing extreme cold weather is “a theory and that’s obviously something we have ongoing scientific debate (on).”
Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, said the bulk of electricity comes from natural gas, coal and nuclear power, and they are the main causes of the blackouts.
Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, said increased use of renewable energy is a popular scapegoat when extreme weather events strain infrastructure. But she said it’s not the root cause.
“It’s easy to focus on the thing that you can see changing as the source of why an outcome is changing,” Grubert told the Associated Press. “The reality is that managing our systems is becoming more difficult.”
Jodi Baker, a spokeswoman for OPPD, said in response to Ricketts that OPPD wants to find solutions to prevent this from happening in the future.
“We are also looking into what led up to the curtailments, as is the Southwest Power Pool,” Baker said in a statement. “We never want our customers to face curtailment.”
Baker said that as of midafternoon Wednesday the power pool had not told OPPD officials to curtail any energy, but she couldn’t say for sure that there would not be any temporary outages in the future.
In OPPD’s area, a total of 80,596 customers were without power for one to two hours at some point from Monday until 8:30 a.m. Wednesday because of planned outages or technical issues, OPPD said.
OPPD board director Craig Moody said the board will learn more about the extreme cold event at a public meeting Thursday. That meeting begins at 2 p.m. The regular February board meeting begins at 4 p.m., where the public can comment. Both meetings are available virtually.
“Rolling blackouts are the last thing that we want for our customer owners,” Moody said. “The alternative for rolling blackouts likely would have been cascading outages that would have been much longer in duration, so they were necessary, unfortunately. There’s no question that many people will be examining what happened, why and how we can prevent this from happening in the future.”
This report contains material from the Lincoln Journal Star and Associated Press.