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Blog: Blackouts and Our Power Grid

Updated: May 24, 2021

As local utility companies issue warnings to customers about energy consumption and mention the potential of rolling blackouts, fear among the populace quickly appears on social media. While many of these concerns are warranted, the energy of worry is misplaced simply because most folks don't understand how our power grid works. After reading this article we hope your fears are lessened and you can sleep well tonight.

Local Utilities are Part of a Network Unlike energy production a hundred years ago where each city was solely responsible for it's own power the modern power grid is a complex system of 3 major grids that work independent of one another while being interconnected.

These three grids consist of seven wholesale markets. In each market various sources of power are created. These range from coal (a major source that is quickly being replaced by natural gas) to alternative sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric (which has been a consistent source nationwide since the 1990's)

See the actual numbers here

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "U.S. electricity markets have both wholesale and retail components. Wholesale markets involve the sales of electricity among electric utilities and electricity traders before it is eventually sold to consumers. Retail markets involve the sales of electricity to consumers. Both wholesale and retail markets can be traditionally regulated or competitive markets."

When it comes to power generation in Northeast Oklahoma, residents have only one retail electricity provider and that depends on where you are. Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA)- With the combination of Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, and Wind GRDA can produce over 2,341 megawatts of power. This power is sold directly to towns. In Ottawa County, Miami, one of GRDA's first customers (1947), had $13.5M in retail electric revenues in 2010.

KAMO Power- While initially covering covering Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma KAMO Power is one of the six Generator and Transmission (G&T) cooperatives that formed and own Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc. (AECI). AECI was created to provide for the electric capacity and energy needs of the six G&T’s. The generation portfolio that AECI provides for KAMO is a mixture of natural gas, coal, hydroelectric, wind and fuel oil.

Northeastern Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (NOEC)- While NOEC was the biggest customer of GRDA power in Craig, Delaware, Mayes, Ottawa, Nowata, Cherokee, and Rogers counties since 1946, it decided it wasn't beholden to it. In 2016 NOEC voted to end it's long contract with GRDA and go with KAMO Power.

Liberty Utilities (Formerly Empire District Electric)- In 2016 Empire Electric District was purchased by Canadian company Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp for $2.4 Billion. Liberty Utilities serves Arkansas, California, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. A majority of it's power production for Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas is coal produced.

Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO)- PSO has served Oklahoma's electric energy needs since the company's incorporation in May 29, 1913. PSO is part of the American Electric Power system (AEP), which is based in Columbus, Ohio. AEP also is one of the largest electric utilities in the United States with approximately 33,000 megawatts of diverse generating capacity, including 4,200 megawatts of renewable energy. Afton is the only community in Ottawa County served by PSO.

All agencies mentioned are part of the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) which in one of the seven wholesale markets. These are interconnected to insure a region has power. If one source has an issue (like a coal powerplant in Joplin going off line) it can purchase power from another source (like GRDA) in the pool. The problem arises when an entire region has an issue like a blizzard that covers the entire Midwest. When this happens the pool has to do business with another wholesale market. While federally regulated and capped, each wholesale market has a different price for their power, thus a possible increase on our electric bill.

Diversity of Power Generation is a Good Thing

Overall Oklahoma is among the states with lowest electricity prices. While the national average per kilowatt hour 13.60 cents for residential Oklahoma's rate is 10.79 cents per kilowatt hour. One of the reasons for such a low price is Oklahoma's growing diverse power generation portfolio. According to US Energy Information Administration., "Although Oklahoma's largest power plant by capacity is coal-fired, natural gas fuels the largest share of state generation. Coal-fueled generation decreased from more than half to less than one-tenth of in-state net generation between 2005 and 2019. Natural gas and wind energy each provided more electricity than coal in 2019, and together they accounted for almost nine-tenths of in-state generation. Natural gas-fired power plants produced more than half of state electricity generation in 2019. At the same time, wind's contribution continued to increase and exceeded one-third of in-state generation for the first time in 2019. Oklahoma ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in electricity generation from wind and accounts for one-tenth of the U.S. total.....Oklahoma generated more than one-third (36%) of its electricity from renewable resources in 2019, an increase from about one-tenth a decade ago."

Because of this diversity, Oklahoma is producing more power than it is consuming. While Electricity consumption per capita in Oklahoma is greater than it is in four-fifths of the states. More electricity is generated in Oklahoma than is consumed and the surplus is sent out of state.

Blackouts Explained

Now that we have told you about how our power grid works we can now get to the thing that attracted your eyes to this article...Blackouts.

By definition a blackout is a power outage due to a problem in the grid. This can be caused by a curious squirrel with a death wish decides to explore a substation, a drunk driver hitting a light pole, or any other outside force. Typically distribution issues like this only affect a neighborhood and local municipalities are quick to fix them. The second situation is much like the first but it's affects are more severe. When computers that regulate the system fail or there's a massive surge in the system (due a an engineer making a very expensive mistake), or a huge chunk of the grid is destroyed by a tornado, power is prevented from being transmitted down the wire. When this happens the lights can be off for days and even months. The third is cause of a blackout is a supply shortage. Unlike blaming mother nature or the electric company the blame is solely on the consumer.

The Hard Truth: Planned Blackouts are Needed In the wake of a handful of major blackouts across North America in the 1960's and 1970's and the energy crisis that followed between 1973-1976 that affects gasoline prices, Americans became more and more aware of our nations energy situation. While government and the energy industry strives to ensure everyone has power and has invested in upgrading and diversifying the power grid there are limitations. Sadly these limitations are not realized by the public until it is too late. As temperatures drop (or in summer time increase) consumers opt to stay indoors and adjust their thermostats in order to stay comfortable. During this time televisions, computers, lights, and whatever else will also be used. For the most part the power grid can handle such a load until mother nature steps in.

In the case of the blizzard of 2021, all forms of power production and transmission from natural gas pipes to wind turbines were affected by extreme cold. At this point The SPP called for rolling blackouts among their members in order to ensure the entire grid didn't go down. This is easier said than done however because residences (who make up 40% of energy consumers in the United States) felt that being without electricity for 30 minutes to an hour was an inconvenience or worse deadly. While concerns on social media were a mix of knee jerk and valid, most people truly didn't understand what was actually happening nor where they aware their decisions may have contributed to this problem.

The Problem "Began" at Home.

According to a 2019 report by the United States Census Bureau, 44.4% of Ottawa county homes are heated by natural gas and 38.5% are heated by electric. While this makes perfect sense and is comparable with the rest of the state it is misleading. The problem, is how the question was presented. To the layperson (or an older adult), gas could mean a Warm Morning stove (or equivalent) that can be found in many older homes and electric that could mean your standard central heating (HVAC) unit that uses a pilot light and blows heat through vents around the house when the burner turns on. While the question helps the Census Bureau report to the government about possible needs for low income folks who need energy assistance, future energy demands, and environmental impacts it doesn't help us understand who is directly affected if a blackout happens. To get a better understanding of the differentiation between a Warm Morning stove and a HVAC unit we have to go to the United States Energy Information Administration. According to a 2018 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) 20.1 Million households in the Midwest have some form of central warm air furnace, 16.1 Million of those household furnaces are natural gas and 2 million are electric. For the most part these all depend on an electric blower. While this fact alone should be a concern to anyone living in an area that experiences extreme weather like tornadoes, ice storms, or snow due to the likelihood of not having heat if the power is disrupted it also contributes to the problem of overloading the power grid when combined with the menagerie of electrical devices in the home. T

The potential of a power shortage in our little corner of the world is further heightened when a majority of homes are not energy efficient. In Ottawa county alone 64.2% of homes were built before 1979. Among these homes 43.6% were built between 1950 and 1979, the BF Goodrich years. While modern in our eyes, these homes are quite old. While the designers of the standard Ranch style home (a popular house style during the years mentioned) thought about heating and cooling and are very likely to have HVAC systems that are energy efficient they may have issues that contribute to wasted heat. Among these problems are decaying insulation in the walls and attic (Note: While not confirmed by us for homes in Ottawa county, blown asbestos was used between 1919-1990 in houses nationwide), drafty single-pane windows, sliding glass doors, leaky and dirty duct work, fireplaces, attic fans, and other unseen issues homeowners may be unaware of. Although construction industry standards eventually addressed energy efficiency by 1975 it is safe to assume homes built before 1990 may not be as energy efficient simply because those standards may not have been in place or enforced at the state, county, or local level.

While it may be tempting to think Ottawa county is the direct blame based on the statistics presented our little community is the norm. Other communities throughout the Midwest also have aging homes and are using just as much electricity.

Parting Thought

As blizzard snow melts now is the time to think about the next storm. The first question you need to ask is, "What will I do if the lights go out, how can I heat my home and cook meals?" followed by "What will I do if the water is turned off?" For some these questions are overwhelming. The biggest piece of advice one can give is start small. A $5 flashlight and a small $20 propane stove from Wal-mart followed by bottled water and bucket with trash bags is a step in the right direction.


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