The City of Vermillion has done all it can to hopefully not experience blackouts, brownouts or other electrical problems that some communities throughout the Midwest are experiencing as severe cold weather blankets the Midwest.

“Obviously the weather is causing problems all over the place,” Alderman Rich Holland asked Light and Power Superintendent Monty Munkvold at Tuesday’s noon meeting of the Vermillion City Council. Munkvold was at the meeting to present the annual report of Vermillion’s Light and Power Department. “Are we set up so that will not happen to us even if we get into a severe load with possible rolling brownouts, blackouts – whatever you want to call it?”

“Our load is fine,” Munkvold replied. “It’s the grid that’s the problem. I called the WAPA (Western Area Power Administration) dispatch this morning to see if they could tell us anything and they really couldn’t. I asked if we were going to get notice of a possible outage and he said they would try to get ahold of us it would happen.

“Hopefully it won’t happen, but we’re just kind of in their hands,” he said.

City officials obviously received word later Tuesday that a blackout may be possible in Vermillion and issued a press release so that citizens could prepare.

The release stated that there was a 40 percent chance that the City would without power between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. Should a power outage happen Wednesday morning, city officials were prepared to lessen its length of time by dividing the community into three sections with the goal of only one third of the City without power for approximately 30 minutes at a time.

City officials asked citizens to prepare for a power outage that could last 60 to 90 minutes as conditions may change Wednesday morning.

City Manager John Prescott said Wednesday morning that a power outage didn’t occur in Vermillion that morning. The City did issue a second press release Wednesday morning, however, informing citizens that an outage in the near future is still a possibility.

“We did not end up having an outage this (Wednesday) morning,” he said.

Prescott noted that the City had just sent out a press release informing citizens Wednesday morning that an outage was still a possibility.

“There could be some blackouts as the systems recover,” he said. “Part of that is we have such a massive area – 13 to 17 states … that are part of this SPP grid. I guess we need a little bit warmer weather across a lot of those states rather than just us.”

The National Weather Service is predicting temperatures will climb to above freezing by the weekend, and reach the lower 40s early next week.

The press release issued by the City Wednesday morning states: “Due to continued high demand for electricity over a large portion of the multi-state power grid managed by Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a power outage in Vermillion remains a possibility. The extreme temperatures experienced locally over the last couple of days and the colder than normal conditions over almost the entirety of the SPP footprint have created the prolonged high demand. If there is an outage due to grid pressures, we will have no control over it and likely receive little notice.”

Wednesday morning’s outage, had it occurred, would help have helped maintain the stability of the electric grid serving South Dakota and multiple states throughout the middle of the country. The widespread frigid temperatures throughout a large portion of the country are currently creating a demand for electricity that is outpacing the generation capacity in some areas. There was a possibly of a Wednesday morning outage in Vermillion to help keep the grid from being compromised.

Vermillion Light & Power is asking customers to conserve energy amid the frigid temperatures and emergency alerts. Residential customers can help by reducing electric usage by delaying running the dishwasher and washing machine, setting the thermostat to 68 degrees or lower, unplugging non-essential appliances, avoiding the use of large appliances, keeping their refrigerators closed as much as possible, closing rooms to avoid wasting heat, closing blinds and curtains to trap heat inside, and shutting off lights when leaving rooms.

The city’s press release noted that situation is constantly changing and that a temporary outage, while being inconvenient, may help avoid longer and more frequent outages.

Munkvold told the Vermillion City Council at its Tuesday noon meeting that he had an earlier discussion about the possibility of a power outage from an individual at Missouri River Energy Services (MRES), an organization of 61 member municipalities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa that own and operate their own electric distribution systems.

Vermillion is an MRES member. Southwest Power Pool, Inc., manages the electric grid and wholesale power market for the central United States. Missouri River Energy Services (MRES) was notified that the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) declared an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) Level 3 starting Tuesday morning at 6:15 a.m.

The emergency alert means that electric generation in the region is not sufficient to meet the extreme and widespread demand for electricity. SPP began temporarily shutting down power, otherwise known as rolling blackouts, to reduce demand on the system. MRES had hoped to provide advance notice to its members but SPP was unable to notify the organization in time.

The shortage of electricity was caused by record low temperatures throughout the country, including those regions typically not impacted by winter weather. SPP has called for the curtailment of 3,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity throughout the region, of which 2,700 MW is load interruptions to utilities in the SPP footprint.

SPP declared the Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) Level 3 effective immediately for its entire 14-state balancing authority area, including South Dakota, but it was not clear at mid-Tuesday whether Vermillion would be affected. System-wide generating capacity had dropped below SSP’s current load of approximately 42 gigawatts (GW) due to extremely low temperatures and inadequate supplies of natural gas, according to a press release on the organization’s web page.

The news release stated that SPP would be “working with our member utilities to implement controlled interruptions of electric service throughout our region. This is done as a last resort to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole. Individuals in the SPP service territory should take steps to conserve energy use and follow their local utilities’ instructions regarding conservation, local conditions and the potential for outages to their homes and businesses.”

“Certainly, this has occupied a lot of Monty’s and his staff’s time today,” City Manager John Prescott said. “Monty has been getting a lot of phone calls about it. The short answer right now is that we don’t have any knowledge … that we will be subject to a rolling blackout or any sort of blackout like that.”

As Prescott spoke, an email with additional information popped up on his cell phone.

“I think things are really settling down and as we get into – I hate to say this – the ‘heat’ of our day, whenever that may be, with the sunlight and those kinds of things, I think things will be settling down now,” he said, adding there will likely be similar conversations this week as subzero nighttime temperatures are forecast in the Midwest.

Prescott said at Tuesday’s meeting that Vermillion and other members of MRES were not experiencing brownout or blackout problems at that time.

“As of today, we don’t know of anything that’s planned,” he said. “We haven’t even been warned, although similar warnings are not super-far in advance.”

Prescott said two of the city’s set of stop lights are backed up by battery power should a blackout occur. The city will quickly place four-way stop signs at other signaled intersections if needed.

“Coming from Los Angeles, something that I think is worse than blackouts is brownouts and the reason I say this is they destroy your refrigerators and any equipment that you have in your house,” Holland said. “If we have a power failure, will it be a real, solid power failure or could we have what is called brownouts where the voltage drops dramatically?”

“No, it would just open up the breakers at the substation,” Munkvold said, indicating that brownouts would not be possible. “Our power would just go out.”

He noted that the city’s high voltage power lines are 100 percent underground, except for transmission lines, which eliminates the worry of some weather-related problems, such as ice buildup on the lines.

Local Response

Electric customers across the Yankton region braced for possible rolling blackouts — the switching off and on of power for periods of time — because of the extreme cold.

The SPP had reported tremendous stress on its system. The soaring demand was caused by a historically cold polar vortex that has descended upon the central and western parts of the nation, as far south as Texas.

At 6:28 Tuesday, SPP declared a Level 2 alert, directing its member companies to issue public conservation appeals. The alert remains in effect until further notice.

“Currently, SPP has enough generating capacity online to meet system-wide demand, but this step is being taken to mitigate the risk of outages,” the notice said on its website.

SPP anticipated earlier this week that because of the high load and persistent cold weather, the system would fluctuate between emergency levels for a 48 hour period earlier this week. As a result, the system could require rolling blackouts, defined as controlled interruptions of service.

The response comes amid a massive Arctic blast. Starting last weekend, the polar vortex has led to record-breaking temperatures and plunging wind chill readings. On Monday/Tuesday, Yankton recorded an overnight low of -25 degrees.

In Yankton, Avera Sacred Heart Hospital took measures to ensure power during blackouts. Mount Marty University closed the campus at noon Monday with plans to re-open at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

A large number of area schools acted early, announcing Monday their plans for Tuesday late starts and cancellations. They included Vermillion and Gayville-Volin, which held classes but had been told to prepare for rolling blackouts.

SPP has indicated more of the intermittent outages may be necessary Wednesday.

In the Cornhusker State, Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) spokesman Mark Becker provided updates on the situation. He noted some improvement during Tuesday but was concerned about the SPP’s ability to meet system-wide power needs during the prolonged cold snap.

NPPD officials were asking Tuesday night for customers to take voluntary steps to reduce their energy usage.

Starting midnight Monday, SPP put out a notice requesting that consumers reduce energy usage, particularly during peak demand times, over a 48-hour period. SPP officials said rolling blackouts may be necessary if the grid couldn’t handle the increased load.

Avera Sacred Heart Hospital of Yankton implemented an incident command Tuesday morning to prepare for potential power outages, spokesman Nathan Johnson said that afternoon.

Maintenance staff members have ensured generators are ready to operate so essential services can be maintained, he said. “Some of our facilities would have limited or no power (during a rolling blackout),” he said.

Also, plans are in place to care for and to keep patients and residents safe, Johnson said. “So far, we have not experienced any outages,” he said.

Mount Marty University made its closure decision based on the possible blackouts, according to MMU marketing director Kelsey Freidel Nelson. MMU officials shared the following message with students and staff:

“We were notified by the City of Yankton, who was notified by Northwestern Energy, that the Yankton area will be experiencing rolling blackouts later today,” the message said.

“We are unsure at this point how long the outages will last. However, we do know that power will be turned off and on incrementally throughout the day, and we aren’t expected to be without power for long periods of time. We are not receiving advanced notice of these rolling outages. Please be prepared to lose power at any time.”

Besides colleges and universities, the cold weather also created concerns for area school districts.

At Gayville-Volin, Superintendent Jason Selchert said his district was holding classes Tuesday. The school had not encountered problems but was prepared for any rolling blackouts, he said.

“We have been notified from Clay-Union Electric (in Vermillion), who is our local provider, that we can expect rolling blackouts. We have not had such as of yet today,” Selchert told the Press & Dakotan.

“We have since already fed students and will remain in school if the outages do occur and are relatively small in duration. Our students are warm and safe here at school. We have determined that if any blackouts do occur, as long as they remain less than two hours, we can handle the situation.”

As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, Selchert anticipated handling any situation during the rest of the school day. The district had no activities planned Tuesday in its building.

Area Power Companies

Despite the downgraded SPP alert level, customers should continue to practice energy conservation, the NPPD’s Becker said. Rolling blackouts may remain necessary, he added.

“We’ll be working with our member utilities to implement controlled interruptions of electric service throughout our region,” he said. “This is done as a last resort to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, NorthWestern Energy spokesman Tom Glanzer provided a similar message for the Press & Dakotan. NorthWestern uses SPP for its power supply.

“Based on warming weather forecasts and current available energy supply, we should be able to meet customer demand for energy,” he said. “But there are some risk factors that could have a negative impact on available energy supply, including if we were to lose any additional critical assets due to the impact the prolonged cold weather has had on both the electric and gas system.”

Glanzer urged consumers to continue reducing energy usage.

“Customers should exercise caution for the next 24 to 48 hours when it comes to using energy and being prepared for potential rolling blackouts,” he said.

Glanzer pointed to unpredictable conditions. “The forecast is showing a large reduction by (Wednesday) afternoon in wind output across the region – and this could have an impact on available supply in the region,” he said.

He also noted the prolonged extreme cold across several states has sent energy demand soaring in areas that don’t normally experience these temperatures. In many cases, the homes and businesses in the typically warmer states — mostly in the south and southwest — aren’t equipped to handle these extremes, he added.

“They are also continuing to experience unprecedented weather all of the way to Texas, and this is having an impact across the region,” he said.

The South Dakota Rural Electric Association (SDREA) has provided updates throughout the extreme conditions. As of Tuesday afternoon, the only outages in the Yankton area were five Southeastern Electric customers.

Southeastern Electric general manager Brad Schardin told the Press & Dakotan that his co-operative, based in Marion, has worked to get customers back online as soon as possible. The co-op’s service area covers several counties, ranging from the Parkston area in the west to portions of Sioux Falls in the east.

“We have the very rural areas, where we run one mile of line to serve one or two customers, to the Sioux Falls area that has seen tremendous growth,” he said.

Schardin encourages customers to reduce their energy usage during peak load times or to shift some activities, such as laundry and dishes, to another time. Southeastern Electric has asked customers to take such measures in particular from 5-9 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. during the duration of the cold snap.

Because of the widespread and extreme cold weather conditions, Bon Homme Yankton Electric has asked its customers to conserve their energy use for the next 48 hours.

MidAmerican Energy said, in a news release, its natural gas and electric delivery systems were well positioned to serve customers through the cold snap.

“MidAmerican operates in a different portion of the electric grid that is not experiencing the same challenges,” the news release said. “The company remains capable of serving all of MidAmerican’s customer load without interruption.”

Freezing temperatures in the southern U.S. disrupted energy production and, coupled with unprecedented demand, created outages in those areas that extended into the Midwest, the company said.

“To support our neighbors to the south and west experiencing those challenges, MidAmerican encouraged its customers to conserve natural gas and electricity usage,” the news release said.

“While MidAmerican’s system is strong and operating as expected to deliver energy to meet demand, customers are still encouraged to conserve to save both energy and money.”

South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Chairman Chris Nelson joined South Dakota power providers in urging energy conservation.

“Unfortunately electricity demand on the grid has outstripped supply in some areas, causing unplanned outages,” Nelson said.

“These outages are necessary to keep from compromising the entire grid. I continue to encourage South Dakotans to limit their use of electricity wherever possible so that we can restore normal operations as quickly as possible.”

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The following are two links that provide updates on outages and rolling blackouts.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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