OKLAHOMA CITY — After nearly two hours of discussion, a divided panel of Oklahoma utility regulators issued an emergency order Tuesday night that prioritizes powering homes over large commercial and industrial businesses if the power or natural gas grid can’t fully support all of the operations.
The order allows Oklahoma’s utility and power providers to make necessary operational decisions to prioritize limited supply to preserve public health, life, safety and security. It is in effect until 11:59 p.m. Saturday.
At times, Oklahoma’s three publicly elected corporation commissioners questioned why such an order was needed.
Brandy Wreath, director of the Commission’s public utility division, who called for the emergency order, said some large energy-consuming companies hadn’t made a decision to ramp production down to zero despite knowing the power grid was in jeopardy. It may ultimately be necessary to shut down power to those non-essential businesses to preserve life, he said.
Wreath said the power grid is suffering from “freeze offs” that affected wind and thermal plants, and there was inadequate supply of natural gas to power and heat homes, he said. The problems with energy generation were occurring as temperatures dropped to minus 18 in places such as Oklahoma City and stayed below freezing for nearly a week.
“This is a dire situation unlike anything we’ve seen,” Wreath said. “This is a real life or death situation.”
More than 100,000 Oklahomans lost power for an hour or more during controlled, rolling power outages during the past few days as worsening weather conditions and polar temperatures forced the Southwest Power Pool, which manages the power grid across 14 states, to direct utility companies to implement controlled interruptions.
Utility companies blamed the outages on high electricity demand coupled with an inadequate supply of natural gas.
As power officials warned that more rolling outages could be likely — without conservation measures — until the state begins to thaw this weekend, pressure mounted on Oklahoma’s three elected corporation commissioners to take steps to mitigate the impact on the public, who seemed to be bearing the brunt of the outages.
Power providers are typically contractually obligated to provide a certain amount of power or natural gas to the state’s industries and largest power consumers.
Utility companies called on state regulators to give them a temporary escape from their contractual obligations in an effort to avoid additional rolling power outages.
Commissioner Bob Anthony, who ultimately opposed the order, said by reallocating power, someone is gaining and someone is losing.
“Who are the winners and losers?” he asked. “I’m being asked to vote on something that could damage some people.”
Bill Humes, a senior attorney with OG&E, said winners and losers shouldn’t be the focus of the conversation “because of the situation we’re in and the dire circumstance that could occur.”
He said if comes down to the “production of widgets” or preserving human life, everyone should know which way things need to go.
The order was welcomed in the power industry as a way to make it clear the order of service that should be provided. It also gives utility companies backup when they make prioritization decisions on how to focus service, Humes said.
Oklahoma resident Alesia Wright told commissioners that she woke Tuesday morning to a rolling power outage that lasted an hour. Wright, who has two children, said the temperature outside was minus 8 degrees. Without heat, the temperature quickly plunged inside her home.
“A lot of talk has been centering around the needs of corporations and businesses,” she told commissioners just before they were preparing to vote. “I want to make sure it is the upmost focus of the commission and utility companies that residents take priority in this situation because you don’t know when someone’s power goes off if they’re on a machine that regulates their breathing (or) whether or not they have some type of medical device that disrupts their life. That should be the utmost focus above money.”
But abrupt disruptions of power could ruin industrial equipment or impact critical infrastructure businesses, including those that refine crude oil or transport natural gas, said Tom Schroedter, the executive director of the Oklahoma Industrial Energy Consumers, which represents industries and other large consumers of energy.
Unexpected power outages could knock equipment down for two weeks or a month
“We need to be careful with what kind of authority we are giving here,” he said.
Commissioner Todd Hiett said it “is very uncomfortable situation,” but said he believed everyone would agree that the safety of individuals has to come first. He said the discussion isn’t what should be the priority, but how to execute those priorities. He ultimately voted to support the order.
Anthony, meanwhile, argued that utilities have the contractual power to curtail their services.
“I believe there are unintended consequences that we will face, and I have concerns about interference with contracts being an issue,” he said.
Anthony also said companies already have the power to manage their resources without state interference. He said they should already be doing the right thing, responding to the emergency and managing it appropriately.
He said the emergency order almost amounts to a statement telling power companies that they need to follow the public interest and do their duty to protect life.
“I think some parts of this are just astonishing to me,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.