Eric Adkins’ power suddenly went out in his home in Muskogee at noon on Monday, just as temperatures in the area dipped to 1 degree.
“It lasted about an hour and a half,” said Adkins, who is an Oklahoma Gas & Electric customer. “I never got an email or anything. Last week our power went out for a few hours, so yesterday I thought it was just another electric outage. I didn’t know about blackouts happening.”
Tens of thousands of Oklahomans lost power in their homes on Monday afternoon and again on Tuesday morning as a winter storm brought heavy snow and freezing temperatures across the state and region.
Utility companies initiated controlled power outages Monday afternoon that lasted about two hours. Around 6 a.m. Tuesday companies again started rolling outages, which lasted between one and two hours. The outages were paused later that morning.
But as frigid temperatures continue throughout the week, experts and officials expect the problems to persist.
Stan Whiteford, a spokesman for Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said he won’t be surprised if the company has to resume controlled outages at some point this week.
“This is changing on a dime,” Whiteford said of the situation.
At one point, the company paused service to about 50,000 customers, he said on Tuesday.
During a virtual emergency meeting on Tuesday evening, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission discussed an order that in certain emergency situations would allow utility companies to divert gas supplies away from some contract customers and instead “prioritize life, health and public safety.”
“We’re not directing them to cut off anyone’s flow,” said Brandy Wreath, OCC’s public utilities and consumer services director, “but we are directing them that if a choice comes up and they have to decide between public health and safety to divert gas or to send it somewhere that is not for public health and safety, that they need to choose the people, the human needs over whatever the other thing is.”
Wreath said the Southwest Power Pool and Oklahoma utility companies have already curtailed usage among large contract customers, but there is still concern that it may not be enough to continue supplying power uninterrupted. Whole, large power plants on the pool’s system are offline until temperatures warm, he said. Wreath predicted power generation from wind in Oklahoma would fall to near zero by Wednesday and with another winter storm moving in, more gas wells and pipelines would freeze.
“It’s a dire situation unlike anything we’ve seen, and there’s no contractual things for curtailment that can do anymore,” Wreath said “This is a real situation. This is not academic. This is a real life and death situation.”
The commission approved the order Tuesday night by a vote of 2-0, with Commissioner Bob Anthony abstaining, citing “unintended consequences” of the order. Anthony said he believed the companies were capable of diverting natural gas supply without an OCC order.
“I believe that there are unintended consequences that we will face and I have concerns about interference with contracts being an issue, so my signature line will be blank,” Anthony said.
Controlled blackouts first began on Monday after the Southwest Power Pool declared a Level 3 Energy Emergency and directed electric providers to start reductions of service. The alert went back to Level 2 less than an hour later. The Southwest Power Pool is an Arkansas-based electric power transmission group that manages the electric grid in all or parts of 14 states, including Oklahoma.
In a virtual news conference Tuesday evening, Southwest Power Pool Chief Operating Officer Lanny Nickell predicted that the service area could be in and out of Level 3 for much of the week. At that time, the power pool was at Level 1.
“We’re not out of the woods,” he said.
Until this week, the Southwest Power Pool had never issued a Level 3 alert. And Oklahoma Gas & Electric and Public Service Company of Oklahoma, the two largest utility companies in the state, had never before implemented controlled blackouts, spokespeople told The Frontier.
The winter storm has overwhelmed power grids in the region. The Southwest Power Pool said the power shortages and energy usage has pushed past the anticipated peak in which the utility systems are designed as people stay home during the winter storms and use more electricity.
Freezing weather has had major impacts on electrical generation from natural gas fired generators. And on top of the decreased natural gas supply, wind turbines have frozen, causing even more strain on the system.
Natural gas and wind energy made up about 90 percent of all electrical generation sources in Oklahoma in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Before Oklahoma customers see the issues subside, natural gas supply must stabilize, said Brian Alford, a spokesman for Oklahoma Gas & Electric. Another issue is that the amount of energy from wind turbines, which produce a smaller amount of the state’s energy, decreased after they were iced over, he said.
“We’re hopeful that as the weather warms we will see these issues abate, but for the time being they will be with us,” Alford said.
At one point during the blackouts, OG&E had cut off service to more than 100,000 customers, some of who were in western Arkansas.
During controlled blackouts, utility companies pull the plug on certain circuits that often include both residential and commercial customers. Companies are careful to not include circuits that power hospitals or other emergency services, spokespeople for the providers said.
The blackouts came unannounced and caught many by surprise.
During an unscheduled outage, Adkins, 33, usually gets an email from OG&E with a projected time for having the power back on. But on Monday Adkins didn’t receive anything, he said.
“I got on and reported the outage but they never responded,” he said. “I finally got on Twitter and figured out it was a blackout. I had no idea.”
Adkins’ grandmother lives in Porum, about 30 miles south of Muskogee, is on oxygen, and uses Cookson Hills Electric.
“She called (them) and asked if they would get a warning before their power went off and she was told “‘No, we can’t give you a warning, it might happen or it might not.’”
The outages even caught Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum off guard. When Bynum posted on Facebook on Tuesday morning about controlled power outages impacting Tulsa, he was asked by multiple people if it was possible for residents to receive warnings before their power was abruptly shut off.
“Unfortunately no,” Bynum replied. “I can speak to this from experience as our power went out in the middle of a news conference.”
Meteorologists across the state began ringing alarm bells last week that potential for record low temperatures and double-digit inches of snow was possible.
In an interview with News9 on Tuesday morning, Gov. Kevin Stitt, who spent last weekend in New Mexico, said state officials had been “on top” of the issue and in contact with utility companies since early last week.
“They didn’t think that it was going to be record cold like this,” Stitt said. “It’s just been a historic storm everywhere.”
State officials have urged Oklahomans to limit their electricity usage.
Natural gas prices spike following weather-related issues
The decreased supply caused by the weather has also caused natural gas prices to spike to levels of “major concern,” Wreath said, with prices reported in some cases of around $1,000 per one thousand cubic feet (MCF). For comparison, the average natural gas industrial price in February 2020 was around $3.54 per MCF, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That increased natural gas cost would have a direct impact on gas and electric customers, Wreath said.
“Natural gas commodity amounts will increase on natural gas bills and the cost of electricity will increase on the electric bills,” Wreath said. “This is not a rate increase. The utility collections for rates will be the same, regardless of the price of energy delivered. Again, the OCC, nor utilities, have control over the end price of the commodity. Collectively, we control that through our demand on the system. We must pull together to do our part to reduce the load as much as we can safely.”
Furthermore, Wreath said, the entire Southwest Power Pool was experiencing power shortages across the system, and pushing past the anticipated peak needs to which the utility systems are designed.
“Typically, our neighbors in SPP are able to assist each other when events occur as it is atypical for the entire footprint to be impacted at the same time,” Wreath said.
“This weather system is pushing past the partnerships and reserve limits,” he said.
Wreath said the hope is that by eliminating or increasing the proration limit — or well production limits — for natural gas in the state during the emergency would increase production directly into the natural transmission and distribution system, and that the additional production would assist in maintaining pressure and flow to end users and election generation.
In March last year, the OCC approved a proration formula that was anticipated to limit production at the state’s most prolific gas wells by an estimated 3 to 5 percent.
However, Wreath said, even temporarily jettisoning proration limits would not be enough to shore up the state’s utility system.
“What is required is the collective action of all Oklahomans to make a difference in this emergency,” Wreath said. “This is an all Oklahomans issue. We need a big shot of the Oklahoma Standard and for everyone to come together to do their part. Turn down the thermostat. Put on an extra layer of clothes. Avoid running those large appliances when at all possible. Turn off extra lights. Turn off as many electrical devices as possible. Stay home. Do your part.”