Odds are most Kansas electric cooperative consumer-members had no idea who or what the Southwest Power Pool, or SPP, is and its relation to electric utilities until some of us, myself included, experienced controlled outages during the polar vortex event in February. Continuous Energy Emergency Alerts, altering between levels 1 and 3 during the extreme cold, were issued by the SPP between Feb. 14-16.
As temperatures dangerously dipped well below zero for a large section of the Midwest affecting about 220 million people, the SPP issued Energy Emergency Alerts, from level 1 urging consumers to curtail their electric use, to Level 3, which signaled the SPP’s operating reserves were below the required minimum and its member utilities were instructed to “shed load.” In other words, controlled outages were necessary to prevent widespread and costly blackouts.
The SPP is a not-for-profit corporation mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale electricity prices on behalf of its members. It is charged with managing the electric grid across a 14-state region, which includes Kansas. SPP member utilities are responsible for generating the power your electric cooperative distributes to you, the electric co-op consumer-member. SPP’s interconnected grid improves electric reliability for consumers served by its members — when one region is short of generating capacity, power can flow from other areas to keep the lights on.
In collaboration with its member utilities and neighboring grid operators, SPP required two periods of controlled outages: one on Feb. 15 to reduce regional energy use by 1.5% and one on Feb. 16 to reduce energy use by 6.5%. According to the SPP, their actions prevented “longer, uncontrolled, more widespread and more costly blackouts” across Kansas and the region SPP serves.
When we review what unfolded in Texas, a state with its own power grid independent of other grids, we are thankful things here were not any worse.
That does not say we got off easy. Ranchers, suddenly without power, performed yeoman’s work to save cattle and livestock during the unparalleled weather event; some successful, some not. Fighting frozen electric water heaters and worrying about pregnant cows just days away from delivery dates, ranchers braved unbelievably harsh conditions to provide safe and life-saving environments for the animals in their care. From chickens and goats to bees, Kansas agriculturalists of all kinds were negatively affected by the polar vortex.
All Midwesterners, no matter our ZIP code, will experience increased heating costs related to the polar vortex event. Even when many of us heeded the call to conserve energy, the mere fact that temperatures were well below zero for extended time periods forced furnaces to run overtime. The prolonged stretch of extremely cold temperatures increased demand, created supply constraints, and pushed wholesale prices of natural gas used to generate electricity up to 200 times more than normal, increasing the wholesale price of electricity.
Electric cooperatives, which are charged these wholesale prices as a straight pass-through from their power supplier, are working with their consumer-members to lessen the strain of these increased costs. Depending on their financial situation, some co-ops are offering payment arrangements to spread the impact of the cost increases over several months rather than collecting it all in the month it is due. Others are offering extended payment plans on the amount that is above the consumer-member’s average total power bill. Many co-ops offer level payment plans and are encouraging their consumer-members to sign up.
On the heels of a record-setting cold weather event, the well-being of electric cooperative consumer-members is paramount. Most importantly, “concern for community” is more than just one of the seven cooperative principles. In action, it means the co-ops focus on members’ needs and work for the sustainable development of their communities.
Lee Tafanelli is Chief Executive Officer of Kansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. in Topeka.