U.S. energy regulators to investigate the cause of widespread power outages

U.S. energy regulators to investigate the cause of widespread power outages

Millions power users in Texas, U.S. Midwest and South-central states still in the dark 

BCN Staff – Feb. 17, 2021 — As most of the nation grapples with the harsh freezing conditions and bitterly cold weather, federal energy regulators are ramping up efforts to investigate power outages affecting millions of electricity customers across several Midwest and South-Central states.

The weather crisis, specifically in Texas, has led to widespread power outages that caused nearly 3 million households to be left without electricity. Texas was thrown into the dark after local utilities were forced to shed 14,000 megawatts (MW) of load representing around 2.8 million households, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

“We know millions of people are suffering,” said ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness. “We have no other priority than getting them electricity. No other priority.”

However, some ERCOT’s power was lost when several Midwest utilities and grid operators went into a power emergency of their own, Magness. Once that occurred, ERCOT was no longer able to import approximately 600 MW of electricity.

“The ability to restore more power is contingent on more generation coming back online,” said Woodfin. Since the winter storm began on Monday, approximately 185 generating units have tripped offline for one reason or another,” said Dan Woofin, senior director of system operations for the Austin, Texas-based independent system operator (ISO). “Some factors include frozen wind turbines, limited gas supplies, low gas pressure and frozen instrumentation.”

As one of the nation’s largest grid operators, ERCOT manages the flow of electric power to more than 26 million Texas customers — representing about 90% of the state’s electric load. As the so-called ISO for the region, ERCOT schedules power on an electric grid that connects more than 46,500 miles of transmission lines and over 680 generation units.

Dominion Energy work crews in the Williamsburg, Va., area clean up down power lines. (Photos from Dominion Energy)

Due to power outages to millions of Americans in Texas and other states amid the ongoing cold snap, FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. announced Tuesday (Feb. 16) that they would open a joint inquiry into the bulk-power system’s operations during the extreme winter weather conditions experienced by the Midwest and South-central states.

In the coming weeks ahead, FERC and NERC said they would formally begin the inquiry, working with other federal agencies, states, regional entities, and utilities to identify problems with the bulk-power system’s performance and, where appropriate, solutions for addressing those issues.

“The Commission is in contact with ERCOT, SPP and MISO – as the regions served by these grid operators have been particularly hard hit by record cold and wintry precipitation,” said FERC Chairman Rich Glick. “Safeguarding the reliability of the bulk power system is paramount and I have directed FERC staff to coordinate closely with the RTOs/ISOs, utilities, NERC, and regional reliability entities to do what we can to help. “

Under the nation’s grid-style electricity system overseen by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission, there are nine independent system operators and regional transmission organizations operating in North America. In Little Rock, the adjacent Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and Carmel, Ind.-based Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc., both operate basketball-court sized state-of-the-art command centers to monitor electricity flow across their respective territories.

The ISO system grew out of FERC Orders Nos. 888/889 where the U.S. energy regulator suggested the concept as one way for existing tight power pools to satisfy the requirement of providing non-discriminatory access to transmission. Subsequently, in Order No. 2000, FERC encouraged the voluntary formation of Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) to administer the transmission grid on a regional basis throughout North America, including Canada.

NERC is the North American regulatory authority whose mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid. NERC’s area of responsibility spans the continental U.S., Canada, and the northern portion of Baja California, Mexico.  Its jurisdiction includes users, owners, and operators of the bulk power system serving nearly 400 million people.

MISO delivers electric power across 15 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Manitoba. One of its largest members is Entergy Corp., which operates Entergy Arkansas and three other utility subsidiaries in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana serving more than 2.9 million residential and commercial energy consumers.

Entergy split from Little Rock-based SPP in 2013 to join MISO following several years of court battles. Although SPP still has pockets of operations in Arkansas, it manages the electric grid across 17 central and western U.S. states and provides energy services on a contract basis to customers in both the Eastern and Western Interconnections.

Besides ERCOT extensive storm damage in Texas, Entergy said it experienced damages across its four-state territory that caused nearly 90,000 customer outages. By late Wednesday afternoon, many of those customers’ service had been restored but new storms coming into the utility’s service area could cause further outages. The high level of instantaneous demand is also hampering efforts to restore power in some areas, Entergy said.

In other areas of the country, Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Energy said power was lost to more than 290,000 customers in the storm that swept through the region over the weekend. Most customers who are still without power will have service restored by Tuesday evening, with remaining customers in the hardest-hit areas expected to be restored Wednesday. One of the nation’s largest utility operators, Dominion provides power to more than 7 million customers across 16 Southeastern states.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy also projected on Wednesday that the hazardous wintry precipitation and high-winds from the approaching winter storm could cause nearly 1 million power outages – some lasting several days based on the storm’s current forecasted track. Duke, a Fortune 150 company., is one of the largest energy holding companies in the U.S. with over 30,000 people and electric generating capacity of 51,000 megawatts

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