For the people running the City of Stillwater and operating its electric utility, it’s been several days of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, usually with little certainty of which it will be or notice when it changes.
It’s been a stressful situation for the city’s utility customers and staff alike.
Twice on Monday the City of Stillwater was told it would need to implement temporary blackouts lasting about 45 minutes to save power and make up for a shortfall in the amount of electricity available across the Southwest Power Pool.
An area covering 4,300 meters was mapped out to cut demand by the required amount while avoiding critical infrastructure and facilities like nursing homes and hospitals. Homes on the same circuits as the critical facilities also avoided being shut down.
After scrambling to get prepared to shut off the designated circuits and announcing the outage to customers, the city utility was told to stand down both times, at the last minute.
Then on Tuesday morning, as demand peaked while people got ready for work, Stillwater Electric was once again told it would need to temporarily shut off some meters to save power. It’s a practice known in the power industry as a curtailment.
City Manager Norman McNickle said city staff were only given five minutes between being told how much they would need to cut and having to shut those circuits down.
There wasn’t enough time to warn customers or put out a map of the affected area until the blackout had begun. As a result, the electric utility received about 400 calls from people reporting power outages before the map could be released.
McNickle said SPP officials admitted they weren’t giving much notice, but that’s because they want to make sure the blackouts are absolutely necessary and they’re calculating right up to the last minute.
Stillwater electric customers should expect to possibly see more short blackouts over the next few days and once again they may get little notice, he said.
The key times to be prepared for SPP to call for a curtailment would be during peak usage: around 10 p.m. when people are settled in at home and around 7a.m. when they’re getting ready for their days.
Mayor Will Joyce told the News Press he knows it’s inconvenient and frustrating, but the good news is, the blackouts are simply a supply issue and have nothing to do with the reliability of Stillwater’s infrastructure.
“We don’t have to fix something to turn it back on,” he said. “But we have to intentionally turn off certain circuits because there’s not enough power to go around.”
The service interruptions are tough because of the frigid cold, but they’re also caused by the frigid cold, he said.
“It’s terrible timing,” Joyce said. “It’s terrible to have to deal with telling people to turn their heat down and at the same time, telling them not to let their pipes freeze.”
But the blackouts are meant to be short and are spread over different areas of the SPP’s 17-state territory to avoid creating an undue hardship for any one area.
People who have health issues or have some type of emergency should call 911 if they need help during an outage in Stillwater. Other residents will be safest if they just cover up with some blankets, stay home and shelter in place, McNickle said.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicates setting up any type of group shelter, he said. Group shelters haven’t been necessary because there has only been one blackout, which lasted about an hour.
Once temperatures rise later in the week, the situation should improve, both McNickle and Joyce said.
Oklahoma is part of a 17-state territory in the central U.S. that relies on the Southwest Power Pool to coordinate power generation and delivery across a regional grid.
An extended period of almost historic low temperatures that brought snow as far south as the Gulf Coast has increased demand for both electric power and the natural gas that runs power plants and heats homes.
People using natural gas are actually competing with electric providers for the fuel needed to generate their electric power at a time when the natural gas supply is lower than normal.
Brandy Wreath of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission called it a “perfect storm” of increased demand for natural gas due to a weather system that is at the same time limiting gas supply by freezing gas wells and shutting down production facilities.
McNickle urged people to continue conserving both electricity and natural gas, saying if we can get through the next 48 hours, we should be fine. Until then, people should be prepared to lose power for a short period of time.
If they were affected by Tuesday’s blackout, there is a good chance they will be affected again, depending on how much of the power load needs to be shed, he said.