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Extreme cold causes 'rolling blackouts' that cancel school in North Platte
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Extreme cold causes 'rolling blackouts' that cancel school in North Platte

School was canceled and North Platte residents took turns shivering in their homes Tuesday morning as “rolling blackouts” from extreme cold and high energy use were imposed throughout Nebraska.

Wednesday’s Telegraph went to press about two hours into the 5 p.m. “evening peak” period that Nebraska Public Power District CEO Tom Kent warned could bring more blackouts if power use was too high.

“Please do your part to manage electricity the next few days,” Kent said during an 11 a.m. video conference call with Nebraska reporters.

“Unplugging appliances and TVs and computers that you’re not using can make a big difference.”

Rolling blackouts at such times help keep the overall electrical grid from crashing and causing longer, more widespread blackouts, he said.

Winter electrical peaks typically are reached around and after sunrise and again after 5 p.m., when people are headed to and coming home from work.

The 17-state Southwest Power Pool, which includes NPPD and other Nebraska utilities, downgraded its “energy emergency alert” from the highest possible Level 3 to Level 1 about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.

While that makes another immediate round of rolling blackouts less likely, “it is likely the system will fluctuate between EEA levels over the next 48 hours,” power pool officials said in an email forwarded by NPPD.

Indeed, the pool raised its alert level back to Level 2 about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday as power usage in the 14 states again rose, NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said in an email.

Lights and furnaces began shutting off in turn around North Platte about 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, after the city set another daily record about 2:53 a.m. with a 20-below-zero reading at the North Platte Regional Airport.

Though that was an improvement from Monday’s minus 29, it still broke North Platte’s Feb. 16 record of 15 below zero, set in 1881.

Wind chill equivalents plunged to 43 below at 3:53 a.m., said Emma Sinclair, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Lee Bird Field office.

Power was restored following the rolling blackouts after about 45 minutes on average, said North Platte Public Service Director Layne Groseth. Some parts of the city were shut off for up to 90 minutes, however.

NPPD informed Nebraska press outlets about 7:15 a.m. that the Southwest Power Pool — which had imposed limited rolling blackouts Monday in Nebraska — was requiring “emergency coordinated interruptions of service” to “maintain system reliability.”

By then, North Platte neighborhoods were gradually going dark. Though the city distributes its own electric power through city-owned Municipal Light & Water, NPPD remains the city’s primary power supplier.

Groseth said ML&W gets little warning from NPPD of when controlled blackouts begin and end. “They don’t get much notice from SWPP at all, so they can’t give us any.”

When Southwest Power Pool orders a rolling blackout, Kent said, human controllers at NPPD’s control center in Doniphan determine which breakers should be opened in parts of individual communities.

They try to rotate them to avoid shutting off any neighborhood more than once, Kent said. But it takes time to reactivate breakers, and a new area has to be shut down before power can be restored to a shut-off area to keep the overall power load balanced.

With Tuesday’s outage, “we ended up opening a lot more breakers than we originally planned to,” he said. “That just creates a bigger list of work for our operators.”

Electric customers in the Thedford and Mullen areas had to do without power from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. CT when a breaker opened for the rolling blackouts wouldn’t close in the extreme cold.

Those customers are served by Custer Public Power District, which distributes NPPD power across parts of 12 Sandhills counties.

Custer Power crews tried but failed to close the breaker, General Manager Rick Nelson said. That forced them “to do a quick Plan B” and reroute power through another breaker.

“They’d have been back on in an hour if the breaker had been functioning correctly,” he said.

About 200 customers were affected in much of Hooker and Thomas counties and southeast Cherry County, he said.

Some Custer Power customers in the Broken Bow area also were affected Tuesday by an equipment failure unrelated to the rolling blackouts, NPPD’s Kent told reporters.

North Platte Public Schools, which had planned a late 10 a.m. start Tuesday after the four-day Presidents Day weekend, called off classes about 9 a.m. North Platte Catholic Schools also canceled.

An email from the school district cited “the unpredictability of the rolling electrical outages and the cancellation of public transportation.” Afternoon practices and activities likewise were canceled.

Lincoln County commissioners held their weekly meeting Tuesday morning with no impact from the rolling blackouts.

North Platte city officials decided against postponing the regular 5:30 p.m. City Council meeting after discussing the blackouts at a 2 p.m. staff meeting.

“We don’t believe there’s going to be a power outage until later in the evening, if we have any at all,” Mayor Brandon Kelliher said.

Coverage of the council meeting was posted at later Tuesday night and will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Great Plains Health anticipated the possibility of power outages and switched to the hospital’s generators about 4:30 p.m. Monday, said hospital marketing manager Megan McGown.

With future interruptions still possible, GPH will stick to generator power for the next few days, McGown added.

In his late-morning video conference, Kent said NPPD has been feeling the strains from February’s “polar vortex” not only from other Southwest Power Pool states but also through the nation’s “Eastern Interconnection” grid.

The boundary between the eastern and western U.S. grids runs near the Nebraska-Wyoming border, he said. Most of Texas has an electric grid peculiar to that state, though the Texarkana and Texas Panhandle areas are part of the Southwest Power Pool.

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Whenever there are “major upsets” in balancing power supply and demand in a major grid, Kent said, all its utilities “can feel that, can be impacted by that, because we are all part of one giant interconnected machine.”

Kent said power demand in the Southwest Power Pool exceeded supply by about 40 megawatts early Monday, leading to that day’s more limited blackouts. The imbalance reached 178 megawatts early Tuesday, he added.

Even as he spoke, three days of below-zero readings in North Platte came to an end.

Lee Bird Field recorded a temperature of 6 above zero by 4 p.m., with a minus-10 wind chill.

North Platte’s wind chill warning expired at noon Tuesday, replaced by a wind chill advisory through Wednesday morning.

Sinclair, the Weather Service meteorologist, warned residents that frostbite risks for exposed skin will remain high through Wednesday.

Overnight lows Wednesday were expected around 9 below, with the day’s highs near 20 degrees. Wind chills below zero remain likely through Wednesday night.

Thursday’s high should reach the mid-20s, while Friday’s top reading could break the freezing mark Friday for the first time since Feb. 5.

Highs in the mid-30s are expected this weekend, followed by more seasonal highs in the mid-40s early next week.

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