More rolling blackouts possible Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, Evergy says; some Lawrence residents without power for several hours

photo by: Associated Press

The Lawrence Energy Center produces power behind Shirks Barn near Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. The area is experiencing rolling power outages as energy companies fail to meet demand. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Story updated at 6:31 p.m. Tuesday

It was more of a stalled blackout than a rolling blackout at the home of west Lawrence resident Roger Powell on Tuesday.

Powell was one of about 270,000 customers in Kansas and western Missouri who were subjected to temporary electrical power outages — rolling blackouts — that were designed to alleviate pressure on the region’s power grid. The power grid is under strain as millions of people in the central U.S. use record amounts of electricity to heat their homes and businesses during some of the coldest weather in recent memory.

But the rolling blackout that was supposed to last no more than an hour ended up lasting hours longer for Powell and other customers of Evergy, the predominant electric utility in Lawrence and Kansas.

The power went off at about 7:30 a.m. at Powell’s home near Bob Billings Parkway on Tuesday. The power didn’t come back on until about 11 a.m.

“My thermostat operates on a battery, and it is showing a temperature of 55 degrees,” Powell said during the middle of the blackout. “It is getting mighty chilly in here.”

Other residents reported longer wait times and colder temperatures, with many fearing their pipes would freeze and burst on a day that saw air temperatures of 20 below zero at times.

A top official for Evergy — the Kansas City- and Topeka-based company that previously operated as Westar Energy and KCP&L — confirmed the rolling blackouts lasted longer for some customers than Evergy had expected.

Chuck Caisley, senior vice president for marketing and public affairs for Evergy, said that was a sign of how strained the region’s power grid had become. He said the Southwest Power Pool — the organization that manages the region’s power grid — called for a much greater reduction in electricity demand than anticipated.

“As it turns out, the Southwest Power Pool requested that we reduce about five times the load, or five times the demand, within our service territory as they did (Monday),” Caisley said. “And they also requested that we keep that demand reduced for about three-plus times of what we had to do (Monday.)”

Caisley said some customers saw outage times of several hours instead of the estimated one hour because Evergy decided to be “very, very cautious and very, very conservative” in case the Southwest Power Pool needed more reductions than it already had called for, Caisley said.

“We had an indication from them that there could be considerably more temporary power outages needed,” Caisley said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Now, the question turns to whether the coming days will require more rolling blackouts to keep the power grid functioning well. Caisley said the Southwest Power Pool was predicting that more blackouts might be needed between 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

“We are not quite out of the woods yet … there is still extreme stress on the system,” he said.

Caisley also said it is possible that future rolling blackouts might need to last considerably longer for individual customers than the one hour that previously was the goal. Caisley said if the Southwest Power Pool comes back with a request that seeks to limit demand in the same way it asked for on Tuesday, then rolling blackouts likely would last longer than the 30- to 60-minute timeframe that was originally envisioned when the rolling blackouts began on Monday.

“We are hopeful that we are through the worst of this and we certainly are doing everything we can to avoid additional power outages,” he said. “But at some point we are at the mercy of both this weather system and all the other dynamics that are going on in the Southwest Power Pool.”

Throughout Tuesday, Lawrence customers and others across the state followed Evergy’s instructions to call its customer service line if their outages lasted longer than a hour. But for many customers, efforts to get through on the customer service line or to communicate with the company via its website were unsuccessful.

Caisley said the company’s telephone lines and website experienced about six times the highest number of calls the company had ever received before. He apologized for the difficulties people had in contacting Evergy on Tuesday, despite the company being fully staffed to take calls, he said.

“It is something we already are working on to make sure it doesn’t happen again and it is certainly something we will learn from in the future,” he said. “But this is truly an unprecedented event today.”

The events of the day left their mark in several ways across Lawrence. Emergency radio traffic monitored by the Journal-World indicated that numerous major intersections in Lawrence were without power Tuesday morning. The University of Kansas and many Douglas County school districts, including the Lawrence school district, closed Tuesday because of the cold weather and in anticipation of more power disruptions. Other facilities, including City of Lawrence buildings, closed in an effort to conserve energy.

But some of the bigger worries that residents who called the Journal-World on Tuesday had involved how to keep their homes warm enough to ensure that pipes didn’t freeze, break and cause major damage.

A local plumber on Tuesday said residents didn’t have a lot of good options to deal with issues of freezing pipes if they didn’t have heat in their homes. Mike Capra, owner of Vito’s Plumbing, said many homes probably could avoid frozen pipes for about four to five hours under the extreme weather conditions, although that estimate can vary significantly from home to home.

Capra said residents could do a few small things to try to extend that amount of time. Those include making sure all exterior doors and windows are sealed tightly to prevent heat from escaping their homes. He also recommended opening up the doors of cabinets where pipes are located, allowing for the remaining warm air in the house to circulate to those areas. He said most residents wouldn’t be in a situation where they could drain their pipes of water, as that can be a complicated chore. Capra said residents largely were at the mercy of electricity returning to their homes.

“Oh, geez, that isn’t good,” Capra said when told that some residents were at three-plus hours without electricity.

Evergy leaders said they understood the frustrations customers were experiencing as a result of the temporary power outages. Caisley thanked the approximately 3,500 workers, many of whom are working outdoors in “absolutely horrendous conditions” to keep Evergy power plants, transmission lines and other infrastructure working properly. He said Evergy’s power plants and transmission system have been working well during the arctic blast. It has largely been strains in other parts of the Southwest Power Pool’s 17-state region that have necessitated the temporary power outages.

But he said it is important that everybody continue to conserve energy and do their part to help ease the strain on the regional power grid.

“The No. 1 goal in everything we have done today and over the last 48 hours has been to ensure grid stability and to avoid a much longer, much larger and uncontrolled outage where people could be out for half a day, overnight, multiple days as we are seeing millions of customers experience in other areas of the country,” Caisley said.

COMMENTS

Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.