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Arkansas' power grid handled February's winter storms, but improvements possible, task force says

As Arkansans turn on their heat with the first chill of fall, state and energy sector leaders are finalizing their assessments of the state’s grid performance during February’s extreme winter weather.

An ad-hoc state committee concluded that the Natural State fared well through the freeze, while highlighting improvements that could further strengthen Arkansas’ critical energy resources.

The extreme temperatures and snow in Arkansas and neighboring states disrupted the fuel supply, primarily natural gas, for electricity generation and heating while some generators underperformed and transmission was constrained. This all while electric and gas utilities saw unprecedented demand in the region, according to the Arkansas Energy Resources Planning Task Force’s 2021 report released in October.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson established the task force in March to assess the state’s critical energy resource preparedness and vulnerabilities revealed by the back-to-back snowstorms and single-digit temperatures. The 20.3 inches of snow in two storms from Feb. 14-18 made February the snowiest month on record in Little Rock.

The overall goal is to better prepare the state should such weather events recur in the future, said Becky Keogh, secretary of the state Department of Energy and Environment and chairperson of the task force.

“This was an important effort,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the participants and stakeholders, those who came together in a very open and transparent way.”

The review comes as scientists predict that the Natural State will see more extreme weather as its climate changes.

[DOCUMENT: Read the energy task force’s report » arkansasonline.com/117energyreport/]

Despite the historic event nine months ago, the state didn’t experience grid failures and widespread power outages as other parts of the South did. Arkansas had only limited, short-duration outages during the storm, according to the report.

However, the task force found areas in which communication, infrastructure and planning for reliable energy could be improved.

The task force proposed creating an Energy Resources Council, comprising representatives from the public and private sectors, to ensure the recommendations are fully acted on, Keogh said.

Hutchinson in a statement said he had reviewed the report and was open to the idea.

“The report is a thorough history of the challenges we all faced in the storms early this year,” the Republican governor said. “I expect actions on the idea of an Energy Resources Council, and my team is reviewing the most effective way to create the Council.”

THE TASK FORCE

The task force held its first meeting March 10, a week after the governor’s executive order created the committee.

In addition to Keogh, the panel was comprised of Mike Preston, Department of Commerce secretary; Lawrence Bengal, energy administrator at the Department of Energy and Environment and director of its Oil and Gas Commission; and Kevin Pfalser, director of the energy department’s Liquefied Petroleum Gas Board.

Between May 27 and June 2, the task force held three public hearings to “provide responsive parties the opportunity to discuss lessons learned from the February winter storms” and allow the task force members to ask questions.

Those testifying included electric and gas company officials, wholesalers, regional transmitter operators and government officials, along with residents with expertise in energy and the environment.

“The reason for this event was the weather, but we really appreciate the task force peeling back the onion. We want to be part of the solution to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Andrew Lachowsky, vice president of planning and market operations at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., which sells wholesale energy to 17 member cooperatives across the state.

Keogh and Bengal said the feedback was mostly positive, with the systems in the state proving resilient.

“For the most part, everyone pulled together,” Keogh said. “Although, I would say, based on the reflections from utility providers, we were on the brink. But for a few special, unique situations that occurred, we could have been in a much worse situation.”

Bengal also said Arkansas is fortunate to have two regional transmitters — Midcontinent Independent System Operator and Southwest Power Pool — that were instrumental in supplying and trading power where it was needed. In contrast, Texas has only one regional transmitter, which along with other exacerbating factors led to days-long blackouts there and hundreds of deaths during the February freeze.

Some Arkansans did experience intermittent disruptions. For example, a small group of around 500,000 electric cooperatives customers experienced 90-minute outages, electric cooperative spokesperson Rob Roedel said.

The task force heard concerns about industry customers who can suffer significant equipment failure caused by such a weather event. Its recommendations take this into account, but Keogh said the residential customer takes first priority.

If outages are necessary, “the task force recommends prioritizing energy so as to preserve human life, health and safety and, to the extent possible, to businesses and industry that would otherwise incur damage to equipment or experience severe economic harm,” the report states.

The state’s current energy diversity helped limit the number of outages, electric industry representatives told the task force.

But even if Arkansas’ resource mix was perfect, it would still be affected if there was a blackout in the region, Ted Thomas, Public Service Commission chairman, said in his testimony.

LESSONS LEARNED

One of the report’s major points was the critical role of communication in an extreme weather event.

Utilities conducted extensive outreach to notify customers of potential cutbacks and the need to conserve energy. However, the report states that some customers were still left unaware until, say, a technician showed up to turn off their gas.

Updating contact lists and increasing the number of staffers making phone calls would help in future energy emergencies, some representatives suggested.

“At CenterPoint Energy, we have instituted a process to update our contact information for these transportation customers,” spokesperson Ross Corson said Thursday, referring to large commercial and institutional users. “We are now calling all the customers in April and October to verify that we have the correct contact information for each company as it relates to who is the person responsible for that company to be informed of any potential service interruption.”

How quickly a utility notifies its customers often depends on when the utility is informed by the regional transmitter operator, which determines when restrictions are needed.

Another frustration came when customers saw their energy bills spike in the months after the cold snap. Utilities spread out their costs of the event over varying timelines, some of which have already ended or will soon.

In a final note on lessons learned in communication, the task force noted that some natural gas consumers were unaware before February of the need to file a human-needs affidavit certifying that they have a facility with human-needs usage requirements. Human-needs customers are exempt from curtailment and include hospitals, housing, greenhouses, poultry farms and schools.

Bengal and utility representatives also said consumers can prepare ahead of time, stocking up on propane before January and when demand is down and prices are lower, for example.

In terms of the adequacy of existing energy infrastructure, the report states that part of the shortage of natural gas — used for gas and some electric power — was largely related to production facility problems outside the state. However, Arkansas can still improve the weatherization of gas wells, in-state storage capacity and further diversify it’s fuel sources.

Bengal said the state can look at more northern states for other mitigation tactics to protect from future freezes. Underground gas storage rules rewritten by the Oil and Gas Commission were adopted last December, and a state working group is looking at future storage sites.

FURTHER STUDY

The recommendation by the task force lists potential organizations for the governor to nominate officials from for the Energy Resources Council. The list includes representatives from the Department of Energy and Environment, Department of Commerce, Public Service Commission, attorney general’s office, utility companies, the gas industry, regional transmitters, and community and business organizations.

Utility company officials reached for this article had largely positive responses to the proposed council.

“Entergy Arkansas looks forward to participating and providing support,” spokesperson Kacee Kirschvink said. “The Council should provide the opportunity for a variety of stakeholders to work cooperatively to share information, identify potential issues, and to develop plans to address those issues.”

The report suggests that the council members would meet at least once annually to discuss policy and technical issues as well as develop and maintain educational materials on preparation and communication during events that could disrupt energy resources.

Task force members said policy adjustments might be minor, but there is potential for infrastructure improvements. They noted the importance of leaving regulatory authority where it is.

Another recommendation was creation an “Energy Disruption Preparedness” toolkit. A website would serve as the central location for energy resource information in Arkansas.

It’s not that most of the information isn’t available, but there’s “nothing to pull off the shelf if you will,” Keogh said.

The information from this toolkit could be sent out through social media, news releases and other channels at least twice a year and when extreme weather is forecast, the report states.

In conclusion, the task force recommends numerous areas of additional consideration and study that could be reviewed in the state, noting that the transmitters have already begun implementing improvements regionally.

Additional actions are recommended, but first, “a robust evaluation of the anticipated ratepayer impacts, environmental impacts, reliability impacts, and economy-wide impacts of any action” should be conducted, according to the report.

More investments could be made in back-up generation, transportation, transmission, distribution and storage to improve reliability of Arkansas’ energy infrastructure, the report states. However, adding reliability can cost taxpayers and utility customers.

The report also notes, along with about a dozen other recommendations, that the state’s congressional delegation should remain engaged in national policy discussions about tax credits for energy resources, such as current credits for solar and wind generation.

While a weather event like February’s is deemed extreme, such “extreme” weather events may become more frequent, many climate scientists have warned.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects that Arkansas will continue to warm over the ensuing decades, leading to increased moisture and energy that could produce more heavy precipitation and winter storms. The EPA has also reported that the changing climate is likely to increase inland flooding as well as severe drought periods in the state.

“I think we all are watching what’s going on nationally and international, as we see climate adjustments. We want a system that is resilient to whatever occurs. Some of these are climate-related, some maybe not,” Keogh said. “I think the point of this task force was to not just focus on weather-related events, but what could cause disruptions, what our vulnerabilities were and how we would make sure to mitigate that.”

Icicles hang from a pavilion at J.B. Hunt Park in Springdale during February’s extreme weather that  included heavy snow in Little Rock and temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero in some  parts of the state. The weather strained utilities and customers were hit with spiking utility bills.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Icicles hang from a pavilion at J.B. Hunt Park in Springdale during February’s extreme weather that included heavy snow in Little Rock and temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero in some parts of the state. The weather strained utilities and customers were hit with spiking utility bills.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Becky Keogh, director of Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. She criticized the EPA’s treatment of states. Here she speaks with a reporter, Niina Heikkinen, after the hearing concluded.