Breaking down why utility companies say they have to black the lights out to better keep them on

Local News

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As a white blanket of snow continued to cover Arkansas Wednesday, the threat of forced blackouts remained far from over for energy customers around the state.

Two federal agencies announced an investigation into the companies that run the electric grid to see what caused the widespread outages in the South and Midwest during the winter storms.

Meanwhile, across Arkansas utilities urged customers to conserve electricity, a move that could help lower the risk of the lights going out and heat going off in homes around the Natural State

“This is just not normal,” Brandi Hinkle, a communications specialist for Entergy Arkansas, said. “It’s not something that we could have forecast.”

Entergy cut power to nearly 60,000 customers over the course of two hours Tuesday night as part of a forced blackout that Hinkle said was not solely at the discretion of the utility.

“It’s really kind of out of our hands,” she explained. “The grid is stressed right now, so we have to take some of that stress off immediately.”

One way to understand how power grids work is to think of them like airports. It all starts with regional transmission organizations or RTOs, which are like air traffic control.

Each RTO is a nonprofit company that runs the electric grid for multiple states, and RTOs are mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

There are two RTOs working in Arkansas – Midcontinent Independent System Operator, commonly known as MISO, and Southwest Power Pool, or SPP.

The electricity that’s made is like the planes. It’s then brought to customers by the airlines, in this case utilities like Entergy and Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.

On Sunday, SPP started posting warnings that energy supplies were critically low, and MISO followed suit Monday. Both companies pin the problem on cold temperatures affecting power plants and natural gas shortages, all compounded by increased demand for electricity.

It was that low supply of energy that led these two RTOs to pull a rarely used safety valve – controlled service interruptions, what many customers have to come to know as “rolling blackouts.”

“As conditions rapidly deteriorated, controlled service interruptions became necessary. This is the first time in SPP’s 80-year history we’ve had to take actions like these,” SPP Chief Operating Officer Lanny Nickell said in pre-recorded statement released on Twitter. “These actions are only taken after all other options have been exhausted.”

Similarly, MISO spokesman Brandon Morris released a statement saying in part:

“On Tuesday evening, the prolonged winter weather event caused additional forced generation outages and high load demand across the bulk electric system. MISO declared a Max Gen Event – EEA 3 for the entire South Region. The declaration instructed member utilities in the affected areas, including parts of Arkansas, to implement periodic power outages. Controlled outages are a last resort and only directed under the most rare circumstances. MISO and its members worked together to identify the worst-case scenarios to limit the effects of temporary power supply interruptions to those areas that will provide the most relief to the grid. Over the next few days, MISO and its members will continue monitoring the record-breaking winter weather to ensure grid reliability. Conditions for the rest of the week remain challenging in the South given the continued extreme weather conditions and ongoing operational uncertainties.”

The operations of both MISO and SPP will be reviewed in the federal inquiry which will be led by the FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Council.

While federal officials try to shore up more electricity, infrastructure is proving to be another concern as power lines are being pushed to the brink.

“It has just created again a historic demand for electricity, peaks that we have not seen before,” Hinkle added.

Her warning is that customers will have to ride out the weather and cut down on what they don’t need, or else they could end up in the dark.

“There is a potential for outages if we continue to consume at the rate we are now,” Hinkle said.

Officials with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities and energy supplies, say the current focus is conservation but add that there likely will be reviews to see what could have prevented stresses on the grid.

While the winter weather continues, utility companies like Entergy are warning that outages could continue to happen without any notice, a threat expected to last at least through the end of the week.

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