Nebraska’s publicly owned utilities generated more power than their customers used during this week’s brutal cold snap in the country’s midsection.
But energy experts say the targeted rolling blackouts criticized by Gov. Pete Ricketts prevented Nebraska and other states from catastrophic failure of a shared electricity grid.
Those cuts, dictated by the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool, likely prevented Nebraskans from living the nightmare facing Texas, where millions went without power for days.
The World-Herald spoke with energy experts, utility leaders and others about what happened, why it happened and what might prevent a repeat occurrence.
Why did Nebraska have rolling blackouts?
A polar vortex brought freezing temperatures to the southern U.S., with the cold snap staying for days as far south as the Mexican border.
Utilities in Oklahoma and slices of Texas that belong to the power pool struggled to operate some natural gas, coal and wind power plants not equipped to run in such cold temperatures.
Getting natural gas out of the ground was also slowed in both states, with frozen wells and pipelines making it harder to deliver the gas needed to generate electricity and heat homes.
Even in Nebraska, where colder temperatures are common, some power plants struggled in sub-zero conditions to operate at full capacity, including coal-fired units in Nebraska City.
The loss of that power production left the power pool, which manages electrical supply and demand across a 14-state power grid, with a power imbalance.
So for the first times in more than four decades, the power pool on Monday and Tuesday ordered its members, including Nebraska utilities, to cut electrical usage.
The power pool’s operators had just minutes to respond, or risk automatic, indiscriminate outages that could have left key infrastructure such as hospitals and police and fire stations without power for days.
“We have to correct that almost immediately or the system will do that for us, and cascading outages occur,” said Lanny Nickell, the power pool’s chief operating officer.
Utilities in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island and other Nebraska communities instituted controlled outages for several hours over two days, as did utilities in every state in the pool.
The Nebraska Public Power District, for instance, was asked to shed up to 178 megawatts of power Tuesday, roughly the amount of electricity used by the communities of Kearney, Scottsbluff and McCook.
Utilities had to comply, said Omaha Public Power District President and CEO Tim Burke. It’s required under the federal regulations governing utilities in multistate power pools.
Nebraska utilities also wanted to avoid what happened in 2003, when cascading outages left much of the northeastern U.S. without power for more than 48 hours.
Why did Nebraska utilities join the power pool?
The Southwest Power Pool works with member utilities up and down the power grid to make sure that the group as a whole produces enough power each day to handle the system’s needs.
The pool tells member utilities, including OPPD, NPPD and the Lincoln Electric System, how much power to produce each day, from which power plants, based on costs bid daily by each of the utilities.
Utilities share the load of producing power for the group and are able to do so more cheaply than each could on its own, said Javier Fernandez, OPPD’s chief financial officer.
Being part of a larger group allows utilities to fix and upgrade power plants like NPPD’s coal-fired Gerald Gentleman Station in Sutherland, as happened last year, without building new power generation as a backup.
“Gerald Gentleman last year went off during our peak time of the year,” said NPPD CEO Tom Kent. “That reserve sharing allowed us to manage that much easier and at lower costs.”
Power pool members also produced power for Nebraska’s utilities after flooding in 2011 and 2019, when Nebraska needed to import power to keep the lights on.
Membership in the Southwest Power Pool also lowers what customers pay for power because local utilities are able to sell their excess power to utilities in other states.
Membership in the power pool saves OPPD customers about $20 million a year off their combined electrical bills, Fernandez estimated during an OPPD committee meeting on Thursday.
NPPD produces much more power than its customers use. But sales of coal, gas and wind power through the power pool help to cover some costs of delivering power across far-flung parts of Nebraska, Kent said.
The power pool, though forced to institute controlled outages this week, was able to minimize the impact on any single utility, said Barbara Sugg, the power pool’s president and CEO.
Utilities in every state are part of such regional power pools, with New York and most of Texas largely on their own. Only northern Texas is part of the Southwest Power Pool; the rest of the state is part of an independent grid. Energy experts pointed to this week’s widespread outages as an example of why joining a group is worthwhile.
“Everybody that serves load takes a piece of that outage, so the outage is not nearly as devastating or widespread as it would be,” Sugg said.
How can future outages be avoided?
Ricketts, as well as some Nebraska residents, have questioned why the state’s utilities left people without power during bitter cold weather, regardless of the historic geographic reach of the storm.
“This outage is unacceptable, and this is something that we have to make sure that we are planning for,” the governor said Thursday. “It’s gotten cold in our state in the past.”
Ricketts said utilities in the power pool’s footprint should investigate what happened and how to keep it from happening again, including examining which fuel sources should power the region.
The Southwest Power Pool has little say over the energy mix chosen by its member utilities, which are mainly private companies, along with some public utilities such as those in Nebraska, officials said.
Kent, of NPPD, which produces the majority of its power using coal, nuclear and wind, said the mix of power generation will be a key question for power pool members. It may be time to discuss investing in nuclear power, he said, despite the higher cost of operating such plants.
OPPD closed its Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station in 2016, after paying to rebuild it following the 2011 floods, citing concerns about cost. Burke said Thursday that OPPD might one day consider nuclear power again.
Nebraska has only one operating nuclear plant, NPPD’s Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville.
But renewable energy sources such as wind shouldn’t be used as scapegoats by skeptics, Kent said. Kent, Burke and other utility leaders said wind power produced at about expected levels, given the extreme cold.
Only one of the 10 facilities that provide wind power to OPPD froze up, utility officials said, because they’re maintained to run in colder weather.
Energy experts said southern power pool members also need to examine how they prepare their power plants and gas pipelines to operate in cold weather.
Some scientists have said the polar vortex’s unusual dip to the Texas coast could be a result of climate change. Utilities will have to calculate whether this sort of once-in-a-generation event could happen more often in the future.
OPPD plans to prepare a report digging into how the outages were handled, including where it chose to begin the rolling blackouts — in Bellevue and South Omaha. That area is close to a power plant, so it was easier than in other areas to cycle the power off and back on.
Later outages affected Papillion, La Vista, Springfield, west and central Omaha and Bennington. OPPD also asked large commercial customers to cut back on their power usage starting last Friday. Business and industrial customers were able to shed 126 megawatts.
Rolling blackouts in Nebraska are rare, especially in winter. OPPD, in its 75-year history, has no record of something similar happening.
NPPD last used one in north-central Nebraska in July 2012, for about an hour in the middle of the night, because a hot, dry summer led to a spike in use of irrigation wells.
“I know people are annoyed, but I think things happened exactly how they are supposed to happen,” OPPD board member Rick Yoder said.