Evergy begins rolling blackouts for Kansas as regional power supply strained by cold

photo by: Associated Press

Frost forms on a window in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Residents across Lawrence  — and the state — had their electricity temporarily shut off Monday afternoon, as frigid temperatures throughout the central U.S. caused utilities to use rolling blackouts to ease strain on the region’s power grid. 

Evergy — the predominant electric provider in Lawrence and the state’s largest utility — said it had shut off power to about 60,000 customers for 30 to 60 minutes on Monday afternoon in an effort to alleviate regional power supply shortages. Utilities throughout the region were asked to implement the rolling blackouts as power plants in the central U.S. were struggling to keep up with the high demand for electricity to heat homes and businesses during one of the coldest periods in recent memory. Monday afternoon Lawrence was registering wind chills of negative 19 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. 

By 2 p.m., Evergy said it had restored power to all impacted customers. But the Topeka-based utility could not rule out that it would have to implement the rolling blackouts again. 

“We may be asked to implement additional brief power interruptions in the coming (days),” Evergy said on its Twitter feed Monday afternoon. 

The idea of rolling blackouts was a new one for most Kansans. Rolling blackouts do occur in places like California and other more populated locations, often during the height of summer as utilities struggle with demands created by air conditioner usage. But it likely has been 30 years or more since Kansas has used rolling blackouts in any significant way. 

Evergy spokeswoman Gina Penzig said it wasn’t immediately clear when Evergy — which previously operated as Westar Energy — last had to use rolling blackouts on a large scale. 

“I have heard references to it happening in the 1980s,” Penzig said. “What I can tell you is it is not something that has been used in the past few decades.” 

It was unclear how many households or businesses in Lawrence had their power temporarily shut off on Monday. The Journal-World, though, did hear from residents on both the east and west sides of town who briefly were out power shortly after noon on Monday. 

Residents weren’t being given any advance notice that their neighborhood had been chosen for a rolling blackout. A press release from Evergy did not provide information on how Evergy was choosing which locations to experience temporary power outages. 

A leader with Douglas County Emergency Management said residents should take some of the same precautions they would take during other severe weather events. Those include having an emergency kit that includes a flashlight, water, snacks and other items. People who are worried about their homes getting too cold during the temporary outage should got to an interior room of the house, which should be warmer than rooms with windows or outside walls, Jillian Rodrigue, deputy director for Douglas County Emergency Management, said. 

“And keep those electronic devices charged,” Rodrigue said. “Don’t let your cell phone go dead during the day. Keep those devices charged in case you do need to make an emergency call.” 

The blackouts created practical implications in Lawrence on Monday, and would have more on Tuesday. The University of Kansas closed its Lawrence campus on Monday afternoon as a result of the rolling blackouts and announced it would remain closed Tuesday. Many school districts, including Lawrence public schools, cancelled classes for Tuesday due to the cold weather and possibilities of more power disruptions. 

Whether additional power outages will happen in future days will depend partly on events that stretch far beyond Kansas. Kansas is part of a system called the Southwest Power Pool. Its territory stretches over 17 states, including parts of Texas and other southern states that are seeing historically cold temperatures that have fueled record high electricity usage. 

All power produced by Evergy — which previously was known as Westar Energy — is part of the Southwest Power Pool grid. If electricity demands in the other states part of the Southwest Power Pool remain high, that could affect the need for rolling blackouts in places like Kansas. 

“For that larger footprint, we are seeing the potential for demand to outstrip the supply,” Penzig said. “If you look at the map of the United States today, there are a lot of very cold temperatures through that center part of the country.” 

It is those temperatures that are causing the threat of power disruptions, rather than the more usual culprit of wind or ice that have downed power lines. 

“Our Evergy power grid, our poles and wires, are working well,” Penzig said.

Instead, the issue is whether the power plants in the 17-state region are able to produce enough power to keep up with the demand for electricity in the region. The non-profit Southwest Power Pool is responsible for monitoring that type of information and “coordinates regional response in emergency situations,” Evergy said in a press release. 

Evergy is asking all of its customers to take several steps, if possible, to reduce their electricity demand during the cold weather. Some of those steps include: 

• Turn thermostats to 65 to 68 degrees and avoid the use of electric space heaters. 

• Close blinds and shades to reduce the amount of heat lost through windows. 

• Use large appliances, like clothes washers and dryer and dishwashers between the times of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., which are non-peak times that the electric grid is under less strain. 

“Everybody doing their part to save electricity the next few days will help us make sure the power supply continues to best serve the region’s needs,” Kevin Bryant, chief operating officer for Evergy, said in a press release. 

In addition to the electricity, people also are being asked to conserve natural gas, if they can safely do so. In addition to heating lots of homes and business, natural gas also is the primary fuel source for a lot of electric power plants. 

Black Hills Energy, the predominant natural gas provider in Lawrence, has not announced any plans for service disruptions in Lawrence.

“To date, our system has performed as intended,” Black Hills Energy Kansas General Manager Jerry Watkins said. “We have worked to ensure homes stay warm, but we need your help.” 

Black Hills reiterated many of the same conservation tips recommended by Evergy. It also asked customers to consider reducing the temperature setting on hot water heaters to 120 degrees, or the warm setting. It also recommended that customers use bathroom ventilation fans no more than necessary, as those fans can quickly vent warm air out of a home. 


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