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Rolling blackouts hit Kansas Monday, as Southwest Power Pool issues 'Level 3' emergency alert due to stressed power grid

India Yarborough
Topeka Capital-Journal
Power lines connect houses in Topeka's Oakland neighborhood Monday afternoon. Evergy is asking customers to conserve electricity, after Southwest Power Pool, of which it is a member, issued a "Level 3" emergency alert Monday morning that energy reserves have fallen below the required minimum.

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Some Kansans suffered through rolling blackouts Monday as extreme cold temperatures resulted in a stressed power grid that couldn't supply the energy needed to meet demand.

After warning early in the day that its energy operating reserves were below the minimum required, Southwest Power Pool — the transmission company that manages energy supply in Kansas and 16 other central and western U.S. states — issued an "Energy Emergency Alert Level 3," putting its member utilities on high alert and indicating blackouts across its multistate region might be inevitable.

As expected, Southwest Power Pool announced just after noon Monday that it had exhausted its available reserve energy and directed its member utilities to implement “controlled interruptions of service" to prevent rampant and uncontrolled outages.

In a news release later that day, it indicated power supply fell about 641 megawatts short of demand at its peak, resulting in the call for rolling blackouts.

“In our history as a grid operator, this is an unprecedented event and marks the first time SPP has ever had to call for controlled interruptions of service,” said Lanny Nickell, the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. 

Evergy shuts off power

Such a disruption in service extended to Evergy, the regional utility serving customers in the Topeka area. 

In a news release Monday, Evergy announced it would begin turning off electricity to blocks of customers starting early Monday afternoon for periods of 30 to 60 minutes at a time. The company expected power to cycle on and off periodically until the service reduction was no longer required by SPP.

Evergy's online outage map as of about 1 p.m. Monday indicated more than 30,000 of the utility's roughly 1.7 million customers were without power. An hour later, the number of affected customers had dropped to a little more than 3,000, as those affected by the rolling blackouts continued to fluctuate.

In a tweet by the company about 2 p.m., Evergy indicated roughly 60,000 customers lost power Monday afternoon for about 30 minutes.

About 45 minutes later, in that same Twitter thread, the utility indicated that all customers affected by the outage had their power restored — though it noted "we may be asked to implement additional brief power interruptions in the coming days."

SPP indicated in a news release that it cancelled its "Energy Emergency Alert Level 3" around the same time, returning to a level two alert. The company indicated that over the next 48 hours, it may have to direct member utilities to implement additional service interruptions "if available generation is inadequate to meet high demand."

More:Topeka sees record low temperature for Feb. 15 of 9 degrees below zero

In Monday's news release from Evergy, Gina Penzig, the utility's external communications manager, said once a service area had been subject to a controlled outage, power would be restored to that area and such an emergency outage would rotate to another portion of the utility's service area.

"With these extreme cold temperatures, equipment may not operate as intended, Penzig added. "As a result, outages could last longer than 30 to 60 minutes."

Evergy is asking customers to conserve electricity, after Southwest Power Pool, of which it is a member, issued a "Level 3" emergency alert Monday morning that energy reserves have fallen below the required minimum.

Evergy continues to ask customers to conserve energy through at least Wednesday to reduce collective strain on the area's power grid. It suggests turning thermostats a little cooler, avoiding the use of electric space heaters, closing blinds and shades to reduce the amount of heat lost through windows, turning off unnecessary lights and appliances, and delaying nonessential uses of energy.

"Evergy is also working with its large commercial and industrial customers to reduce energy usage this week," Penzig said.

Those affected by an "emergency electricity reduction," also known as a rolling blackout, don't need to report such outages, as they should be reflected on Evergy's online outage map.

If such an outage lasts longer than an hour, though, it should be reported at evergy.com or by calling 888-544-4852 or 800-544-4857, according to the release.

Outages impact Topeka, Shawnee County

The city of Topeka indicated in a tweet Monday afternoon that the power disruptions could cause some traffic signals to go out. If a traffic signal is out, city officials say to treat it as a four-way stop.

Shawnee County officials were also talking with the American Red Cross on Monday about the possibility of setting up warming shelters, said Errin Mahan, interim director of the county’s emergency management department.

However, he couldn’t say how many shelters might be needed or when they might become available, indicating such communication was a preliminary measure.

“We are not really planning to set any up right now,” Mahan said shortly before 2 p.m. “Right now, we are making sure we have contact information (and) making sure they have the heads up so that they can start putting some preparedness stuff in place."

Mahan recommended that people charge their devices but charge no more than two devices at a time. He added that people should have emergency preparedness kits on hand. Such kits could include blankets and nonperishable food and flashlights and should be prepared before the power goes out.

The possibility of outages also caused some concern among operators of homeless shelters.

Staff members at the Topeka Rescue Mission were preparing Monday for the possibility of outages but hadn't yet experienced any as of mid-afternoon, according to executive director Barry Feaker.

Feaker indicated backup gas-powered generators were present at the rescue mission's main building, 600 N. Kansas Ave., and at its Children's Palace building, 601 N.W. Harrison, which houses educational and business-administration operations.

"As long as the gas keeps coming in, we're OK," Feaker said.

​He said that in the event of a blackout, women and children housed at TRM's Hope Center, 116 N.W. Curtis — which doesn't have a generator — would be moved temporarily to the main building.

In addition, people working in TRM's distribution center, at 401 N.W. Norris, and its warehouse, 206 N.W. Norris — neither of which have generators — could either be sent home or go to one of the two buildings that have backup power, Feaker said.

He added that the rescue mission was preparing for the possibility of a longer outage by ensuring it had plenty of coats, hats, blankets and gloves available for patrons to use.

"Hopefully, we'll get through this," he said.

Concerns across Kansas

Signs that the extreme weather might pose problems for Kansans emerged Sunday night, as Gov. Laura Kelly issued a cold-weather emergency declaration, which allows state resources to be used to assist with any response efforts in parts of the state particularly hard hit.

In a 2:30 p.m. news conference Monday, Andrew French, of the Kansas Corporation Commission, said rolling blackouts for the afternoon had concluded. But he said it was possible additional shutoffs could come again late Monday or early Tuesday.

While heightened demand for electricity due to the extreme cold has played a role in the energy crisis, French said the weather itself is also causing some problems with energy generation.

“We’re experiencing issues with wind turbines. They’re not able to produce as much power as normal due to conditions like freezing fog," he said. "Some of our coal plants are not able to produce as much power as normal because of freezing coal stacks."

Andrew French, of the Kansas Corporation Commission, gives updates on the state's energy crisis during a news conference Monday afternoon at the state capitol.

He added that natural gas plants were also malfunctioning, causing competition among utilities for natural gas.

The extreme cold also resulted in a spike in gas prices, which could result in higher bills for customers.

“They don’t think this is going to be a supply issue; there should be enough gas for everyone," French said. "But those price spikes are very high — as much as 100, 150, 250 times the normal wholesale price of gas."

And it isn’t just a Kansas issue. It is a regional one, he emphasized.

When it comes to locations where COVID-19 vaccines are being stored — as some vaccine doses have to be kept at very specific temperatures — facilities should have backup generators, state officials said.

As for what went wrong Monday, or how the electric grid could be strengthened, French said that is a discussion for a later time.

“I have no doubt there will be much time for investigation, litigation in the future to figure out what went wrong here and how we can strengthen our supply of energy and the grid,” he said.

A few counties have gone into states of emergency, but for now, they don't appear to be pressing, according to adjutant general Maj. Gen. David Weishaar.

“There are no specific needs from counties right now,” he said.

Topeka Capital-Journal reporters Andrew Bahl, Blaise MesaTim Hrenchir and Titus Wu contributed to this report.