As another winter storm strains the electric grid, it’s time to fix transmission, experts say

by Robert Zullo, Kansas Reflector


The deadly winter storm, christened Elliott by the Weather Channel, that tore through much of the United States over the Christmas weekend placed a huge strain on the American electric grid, pushing it past the breaking point in some places.

Frigid temperatures, in some places setting records, drove a surge in electric demand while also causing big problems for gas, coal and other power plants that took electric generation offline just when it was needed most. That forced some southeastern utilities to cut power to thousands of people on a rotating basis, and led grid operators to urge customers to conserve power.

“Supply and demand for electricity have to exactly balance in real time,” said Michael Goggin, a longtime electric industry analyst and vice president at Grid Strategies, a consulting firm focused on clean energy integration. “If not, in a matter of seconds the grid can collapse.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation announced Wednesday that they will open a joint investigation into the power system’s performance.

“There will be multiple lessons learned from last week’s polar vortex that will inform future winter preparations,” said Jim Robb, president and CEO of NERC, the nonprofit regulator that sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S.

“This storm underscores the increasing frequency of significant extreme weather events (the fifth major winter event in the last 11 years) and underscores the need for the electric sector to change its planning scenarios and preparations for extreme events.”

But for some experts, a major lesson from the storm is already plain, and it’s the same as learned in past severe winter weather: The U.S. grid needs to be better connected to enable power to be moved easily to where it’s needed in moments of crisis.

“Although this was a massive event that ultimately affected huge parts of the country, there were geographic elements to it,” said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School. “The attention belongs on the transmission system.”

The storm                   

John Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the storm was unusual in several aspects, including the rapid drop in temperatures triggered by a blast of arctic air pushing down from Canada far into the American South, the rapid strengthening called “bombogenesis,” and the heft of the pressure behind the system, which he said set a record in Edmonton, Canada.  

“It’s a very broad system and it’s a lot of impacts associated with it. … The cold air with this one was a little bit stronger than we usually see this time of year,” Moore said, noting that the storm caused temperatures to drop 37 degrees in one hour at Denver International Airport, for example, and set temperature records in Wyoming and Montana, according to preliminary data.  

As it moved east, it caused a deadly blizzard in the Buffalo area that claimed at least 40 lives and wreaked havoc on the electric grid. 

“There were likely other records set across the South and East Coast,” Moore said.


Though hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were left without power because of normal storm calamities such as downed power lines, many other customers in the Carolinas and the Tennessee Valley Authority service territory, which includes most of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, saw outages because of the strain struggling power plants and surging demand placed on the grid.

“What we saw was concerning,” said Goggin, who was monitoring data from many of the major regional transmission organizations hit by the storm. “You saw very high unplanned or forced outages of power plants of many types but primarily fossil.” The extreme cold shut down many natural gas production wells, he said, which limited pipeline supplies that feed power plants. 

“We’ve seen a number of events like this where the extreme cold disrupts the gas system which then cascades to the power system,” he said. 


On Dec. 23, with demand climbing past 33,000 megawatts (its normal December demand is around 24,000) the TVA for the first time in its 90-year history instituted load shedding — temporary, controlled outages — and urged customers to conserve electricity. The service interruptions ended on Dec. 24, with the TVA saying it had supplied more power over the previous 24 hours than ever before to meet an all-time peak winter demand. POWER magazine also quoted a TVA spokesperson saying that a “limited number” of power plants in TVA’s territory “did not operate as expected during this event resulting in a loss of generation.”

“We at TVA take full responsibility for the impact we had on our customers,” the authority said in a Dec. 28 statement. “We are conducting a thorough review of what occurred and why. We are committed to sharing these lessons learned and — more importantly — the corrective actions we take in the weeks ahead to ensure we are prepared to manage significant events in the future.”

In an email to States Newsroom Thursday, a TVA spokesperson could not say how many customers were affected nor provide any information on why power plants weren’t able to perform, citing the ongoing review. In the Memphis area, where Memphis Light, Gas and Water is the TVA’s largest customer, more than 30,000 customers were affected, WMC-TV, a local station, reported. The Chattanooga Free Press reported on Christmas Eve that the TVA had lost about 6,000 megawatts of generation the day before at coal and gas plants.

“Until the review is completed over the next few weeks, any discussion on individual plants would be inappropriate because it would just be speculation on our part,” TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler told States Newsroom. “As the wholesale power provider, we instruct our 153 local power companies to reduce load. They implement the process to limit the impact to their customers. We expect customers were affected by 15-30 minutes in a rolling fashion as LPCs implemented curtailments.”

Duke Energy

Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, was forced to cut power to about 500,000 of its customers in North Carolina and South Carolina on Dec. 24, with the last of them having power restored by about 6 p.m., spokesman Jeff Brooks said. 

“The combination of temperatures that were lower than forecast, customer usage that was higher than projected, some reduction in generating capacity on our system and limited options for additional capacity from outside of our service area due to extreme cold weather that impacted the eastern half of the United States created conditions that resulted in the need to conduct temporary outages,” Brooks said. 

“We made this difficult decision to protect the electric grid and reliability on our system, and to avoid a potential longer or broader outage to customers.”

Another Duke Energy spokesman told States Newsroom in November, in response to a report by NERC that its service territory might be vulnerable to electric outages in the event of extreme winter weather, that the company was “ready to meet the energy needs of our customers every day, regardless of weather.” 

Brooks said the company is still examining generation performance during the storm and assembling information for regulators and couldn’t provide more details on what type of power plants failed to perform. 

Duke Energy officials are scheduled to brief the N.C. Utilities Commission staff on the outages on Tuesday. 

“It was a combination of generation on our system that was either reduced or unavailable that evening, coupled with the inability to import additional electricity from out of state (which is something we can typically do to add to our native generation) that resulted in the need to initiate temporary outages,” Brooks said, noting that solar wasn’t a factor because it was dark when the outages were initiated. As of 2021, wind, solar and hydroelectric power made up just 7% of Duke’s company-owned output.

“We did believe that we had adequate generation going into Friday evening to meet the forecasted demand for electricity,” Brooks said. “That demand ultimately came in higher than we forecast.”


Faced with plunging temperatures, surging power demand and some power plants struggling to perform, PJM, the nation’s largest grid operator, issued a call for customers to conserve energy a day before Christmas Eve. The call came as a surprise for electric industry experts.

In a winter reliability assessment, NERC said that PJM — which coordinates the movement of electricity for 65 million people in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia — “expects no resource problems over the entire 2022-23 winter peak season because installed capacity is almost three times the reserve requirement.”

But a big portion of that excess electric generation capacity was struggling to produce power, said Michael Bryson, PJM’s senior vice president of system operations.

“We saw pretty significant generation outage data coming in, failing to start or tripping offline, far exceeding our ability to keep up,” Bryson said. In its request to the Department of Energy for a temporary waiver of environmental rules for generation units, PJM said its peak load, or electric demand, exceeded 135,000 megawatts on Dec. 23 while about 45,000 megawatts of generation were out or underperforming. (PJM lists about 185,000 megawatts of total generation capacity)

Bryson said in an interview that the performance problems affected coal, gas and nuclear plants. Wind, which makes up the majority of renewable energy in PJM’s generation mix (though it is dwarfed by coal, gas and nuclear) performed well during the storm, Bryson said. He had not had the chance to review how solar energy fared during the event. 

“We’ll be working through those issues unit by unit over the next week,” he said, adding that power plants that failed to meet their performance criteria risk financial penalties.

In addition to participating in the NERC-FERC inquiry, “we’re going to kick off a pretty comprehensive lessons-learned session ourselves,” Bryson said, including examining the organization’s own extreme cold electric load forecasting. He said PJM’s forecast was low by about 7 to 10% on Dec. 23.

Creating a grid ‘bigger than the weather’

Peskoe, the director of the electricity law initiative at Harvard, and Goggin, the energy consulting firm executive, both said too often in the aftermath of major storms that stress the power grid, one form of generation or another comes under fire.

“Extreme weather like this does affect all generation sources,” Goggin said, though he said it appeared that renewables, which don’t need coal piles that can freeze or pipelines that can be curtailed by cold, largely fared well during the storm.

But the real task for the people in charge of the nation’s electric grid, is to grow a transmission system that’s “bigger than the weather,” as Goggin put it.

“When you do that, it allows you to bring in power from areas that are less affected,” he said. “Having a large grid that allows you to move power around as events like this unfold provides a lot of value.” 

Goggin said he monitored data from the regional transmission organizations affected by the storm, including the Southwest Power Pool and MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator), neither of which had to resort to rolling outages, and noticed that wind electric prices in those markets plunged to very low or even negative levels. That means there wasn’t enough transmission capacity to get the large amount of electricity the turbines were producing to where it was needed.

Southwest Power Pool

The Southwest Power Pool, which coordinates the flow of electricity over more than half a million square miles in all or part of 14 states (Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming), set a record for winter electric use on Dec. 22 of more than 47,000 megawatts, blowing past the previous record of 43,661 set on Feb. 15, 2021. 

However, there were no rolling outages implemented, a spokeswoman confirmed to States Newsroom.


The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages electricity across all or part of 15 U.S. states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin) and the Canadian province of Manitoba, an area that includes 45 million people, declared a maximum generation event on Dec. 23 “due to unplanned generation outages and higher-than-expected electricity consumption.” 

Declaring that event involves multiple steps, including directing its members to turn on all available emergency power generation, asking electric customers to reduce energy usage and purchasing any available emergency energy from neighbors. Rolling outages are a last resort, but that never happened. 

A MISO spokesman told States Newsroom collection of data from the storm is underway and more information might be available next week.

“That power would have been extremely valuable in locations farther east but it couldn’t get out of the wind-producing areas,” he said.

Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, a trade group for large renewable energy and energy storage companies, said the storm showed how critical interconnection between regions is for reliability and that other parts of the southern electric grid are vulnerable to severe winter weather like the catastrophic grid collapse Texas saw in 2021.

“Being connected with our neighbors is exceptionally important,” he said. “If we weren’t connected with MISO and PJM, things would have been a disaster. … Winter Storm Elliott is kind of that storm that showed that the rest of the Southeast is vulnerable like Texas was.”

Mahan noted that the storm raised transparency issues as well, with real-time data on generation and load coming in from areas controlled by regional transmission organizations like PJM and MISO but not so much from areas controlled by the TVA or monopoly utilities like those owned by Duke in the Carolinas and Southern Company in Alabama and Georgia.

“It’s very easy to see where there are problems. But in the Southeast, because there’s so little transparency, it’s hard to see,” he said. 

The storm came as FERC is weighing a major proposed rule on streamlining regional electric transmission planning and cost allocation as well as taking into account broader benefits. And it comes less than a month after a FERC-led meeting on potentially requiring a minimum amount of interregional electric transfer capability — electricity that can be moved between regional transmission systems —  for public utility transmission providers. Supporters described it as an “insurance policy” in the event of grid crises like extreme weather.

“One thing that I hope is explored as people try to dissect what happened is what would the value have been of interregional transfer capability during this event,” Peskoe said.

FERC Commissioner Willie Phillips at the meeting said better transfer capability can improve reliability and resilience, lower costs for customers by allowing them to access cheaper electricity and accommodate more renewable power.

“Given the likelihood of future extreme weather events and related generation shortfalls, many stakeholders have been asking us to do something,” Philips said. “Both Winter Storm Uri and the 2014 polar vortex, these events have shown that greater interregional transfer capability has a significant reliability benefit.”

Not everyone was a fan of the idea though. Tricia Pridemore, chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, said states like Georgia that are not part of regional transmission organizations, don’t need a new transfer requirement, citing the state’s utility planning process and cooperation with other southeastern utilities. 

“Our bottom-up approach maintains reliability and does not put upward pressure on rates by constructing unnecessary or duplicative transmission assets,” she said. “Georgia is better for maintaining a safe, reliable affordable system all while not being told to do so from a top-down governance structure.” 

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, Georgia is one of the more expensive states in the South in terms of average residential retail electric price and Pridemore’s commission just approved a big rate hike for the state’s dominant utility, Georgia Power.

“The reality is during the storm and this past week after the storm, Southern Company and Georgia have really relied on imports from MISO and a significant amount of power from Canada that has been brought into MISO,” Mahan said. “It’s pretty incredible how Canada is helping keep the power on in places like Atlanta.”

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Water debate will return to Kansas Legislature amid staggering drought

Ogallala Aquifer expected to show huge declines this year

by Allison Kite, Kansas Reflector

Legislators are almost certain to place the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer among their top priorities as the drought bearing down on Western Kansas hits the already depleted water supply.

Every inch of Kansas is either abnormally dry or in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with most of the western half of the state in either an “extreme” or “exceptional” one.

In Western Kansas, where there’s little surface water to be found, crop irrigation is expected to once again drive big declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground water sources. Parts of the aquifer that still have water left to pump could see quadruple the losses of a normal year.

“We’re anticipating water levels are going to be down probably everywhere in the aquifer,” said Brownie Wilson, a researcher for the Kansas Geological Survey.

But Gov. Laura Kelly told a crowd in Manhattan last month that Kansans didn’t need the drought to remind them of the severe state of the aquifer.

She said “waiting for a miracle is not an option.”

“I give you my word that protecting our water supply will remain a top priority in Topeka over the next four years,” Kelly said. “I refuse to allow the can to be kicked any further down the road.”

Kelly’s pledge adds urgency to the work Kansas legislators started in the last couple of years, highlighting the decline of the aquifer and looking for ways to tackle it. Last year, the state fully funded its water plan for the first time since 2008 and started an audit of groundwater management in Western Kansas.

But legislators’ efforts to pass monumental legislation overhauling state agencies and exerting more pressure on local officials to conserve water fell short. The bill was gutted in committee.

Last year’s chair, Rep. Ron Highland, didn’t seek reelection. Now, Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, will lead. Minnix, a farmer and rancher who says he has been trying to conserve for 20 years, said new members would have to be brought up to speed. But he’ll encourage them to study on their own.

“We’re not going to start from scratch,” he said, adding that he hopes to move forward as quickly as possible.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn served as the ranking Democrat on the House Water Committee for the last two sessions as members studied the state of the aquifer and attempted to overhaul water management in Kansas.

The committee didn’t pass the major legislation Highland and Vaughn hoped. Minnix was among the legislators who voted against it. But Vaughn thinks there’s momentum.

“I think that really was a launchpad for some of the current dialogue,” Vaughn said. “And just based on what I’ve heard, the interest is really continuing into next session and has continued in the interim.”

Vaughn said she’s heartened by Kelly’s commitment to water policy and the Kansas Water Authority’s recommendation that the state move away from its de facto policy of depleting the aquifer.

When lawmakers return in January, they’ll be faced with the question of just how to reverse a problem that their predecessors haven’t gotten their arms around for decades. Scientists and policymakers have known for at least 40 years that the Ogallala is in decline. They allowed groundwater management districts to manage the aquifer locally — with varying success.

Those districts opposed the overhaul that would have created more state oversight of groundwater. So did the Kansas Farm Bureau, which backed the amendment that gutted the legislation.

The committee member who offered the amendment, Rep. Joe Newland, stepped down to become president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

KFB’s public policy director, Kent Askren, said funding would be a big issue.

He said he thought the Kansas Water Authority’s desire to have a supply indefinitely into the future was a good one.

“But implementation is the real challenge,” he said. “And I think that’s where the legislature will have to hear from a lot of different interests because Western Kansas and … any economy thrives upon having an abundant, good quality water supply.”

Askren said the state needed locally developed strategies to meet the goal of stopping decline of the aquifer.

“I think the worst thing that we could do is to take a goal and come up with a single solution out of Topeka that is then handed off to Western Kansas to implement,” he said.

Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas, said he hopes to see not only more funding but innovative policy “to disincentivize the continual draining of the aquifer.”

“I’m very optimistic,” Pistora said. “And I think that’s because our legislators know, everyone knows, that something has to be done. The can has been kicked too far down the road.”

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Residents to ask for a stop to BPU disconnections at meeting set for Wednesday night

A public community meeting on Board of Public Utilities’ bills is planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, at the South Branch Library, 3104 Strong Ave., Kansas City, Kansas.

Community members are demanding the BPU stop utility disconnections and also are demanding local government leaders to remove fees and taxes from BPU utility bills.

“BPU and the UG Commissioners need to stop dangerous utility disconnections and end regressive fees on utility bills,” said Louise Lynch, community organizer. “Our demands are necessary to ensure that our community’s path to clean energy is just and equitable.”

Community members are also demanding transparency and accountability for moving BPU from coal to clean energy to meet the region’s net-zero carbon pollution goal in the KC Regional Climate Action Plan, according to a spokesman.

According to the group, BPU disconnected over 10,000 accounts in 2021, including over 1000 accounts per month during some of the coldest winter months in 2021-2022.

“In order to protect customers from involuntary shut-offs and high prices, BPU should work with UG Commissioners to access millions in federal environmental justice grants. Local government leaders should facilitate community planning across Wyandotte County with help from the Kansas Energy Office,” said Ty Gorman, Kansas campaign representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “There have been many public comments demanding improvements from BPU in recent Board, UG Commission, and Mayoral task force meetings.”

Volunteer activists have compiled high-level demands for BPU and local government leaders, including:

  • UG Commissioners should instruct BPU to discontinue any water or electric shut offs that might put customers at health risk.
  • UG Commissioners should remove unrelated fees or taxes on the BPU bill. No one should be put at risk of losing water or power because of inappropriate city charges.
  • The UG Commission should amend the BPU Charter to transparently plan (IRP) with KCK communities and city government to access federal funding, lower customer bills, eliminate coal pollution in our community, and keep us safe and housed by facilitating weatherization, energy efficiency, rent and other assistance access for low-income customers.