Some North Dakota and Minnesota counties are experiencing temporary power outages in the wake of a winter storm that sent temperatures plummeting in the southern U.S., but as of late Tuesday afternoon, it did not appear the immediate Grand Forks region would see blackouts.
However, spokespeople from various entities said anything is possible as southern states recover from the storm, which dumped up to eight inches of snow in Texas and Oklahoma.
Rolling blackouts have been reported in Towner County, N.D., in the vicinity of Cando, and were expected to continue throughout Tuesday, Feb. 16. Some outages were reported in Benson County, west of Devils Lake. The outages come as utility providers on Southwest Power Pool’s grid, which spans 14 states including much of the Dakotas, are being asked to conserve power following the rare winter storm that left millions of households in Texas without electricity.
A Tuesday Forum News Service report said the city of Moorhead, Minn., was experiencing rolling blackouts, too.
According to Lori Beck, emergency manager for Towner County, the rolling blackouts there began at 7 a.m. Tuesday and continued throughout the day for the county’s 2,300 residents. Typical blackouts were lasting from a half hour to an hour.
“I notified my ambulance, my fire and my law enforcement,” Beck told the Herald Tuesday morning. “We're all working together to try and get a generator hooked up, because if we do have an emergency, everything's inside a garage, so we’ve got to be able to get those garage doors open and get everybody out if a situation should arise.”
Portions of Towner County are served by Northern Plains Electric Cooperative. A statement on the company’s website said the company is being required by Southwest Power Pool to conserve energy. SPP is a grid operator that manages a network running from northern Texas straight north to the Canadian border. SPP declared an emergency Monday when demand exceeded energy production.
“Our power suppliers are being mandated to shed load,” the statement reads in part. “Northern Plains members can expect to have their power cycling every half hour to hour for most of the day. Know that this is a federal directive and we will provide more information when it becomes available to us.”
Chris Jaeger, emergency manager for Ramsey County – which includes the city of Devils Lake – said he is preparing for possible outages by checking on the backup generator at critical facilities, including freezers that store coronavirus vaccines. The county is served by Nodak and Ottertail power companies.
“I spoke to them, they were not aware of any planned outages (Tuesday), but anything's possible when it comes from the federal level,” Jaeger said.
In a late Monday afternoon email to the Herald, Xcel Energy said it is taking steps to manage its resources so its Upper Midwest customers have enough power and natural gas. The company said it does not have “specific asks of our customers at this time.” The company shared energy saving tips, including setting thermostats lower a few degrees. More tips can be found at www.xcelenergy.com/ways_to_save.
In the region, Xcel, along with Nodak and Minnkota Power Cooperative, operate on a different grid from SPP, called Midcontinent Independent System Operator. Minnkota experienced a brief outage at a substation near Lisbon, N.D., but otherwise has been in normal operation. Still, officials there could not rule out the possibility of blackouts in the Grand Forks region.
“MISO doesn't anticipate implementing any load reductions (Tuesday), and we don't anticipate any power interruptions (Tuesday), but the situation continues to evolve,” said Ben Fladhammer, a spokesman for Minnkota.
Blaine Rekken, member and energy services manager for Nodak, said Tuesday afternoon there had been no outages in the company’s service area, but that a “max generation event” can take over a power grid.
“I don't know necessarily if we're out of the woods on this,” Rekken said. “We're hoping that we don't experience something like this, but I'm not the one to know if it could happen or not at this point.”
In Grand Forks County, some facilities, including the Grand Forks County Office Building and the Alerus Center, have switched to fuel oil to run the boilers that generate heat. In itself, this is not an unusual thing, according to Tom Ford, county director of administration, but it has lasted longer than normal.
Ford said the county building switched to fuel oil on Friday, Feb. 12, before the storm in Texas, after having its natural gas supply curtailed by its utility provider, Xcel Energy. Curtailment happens in times of extreme cold, when Xcel is obligated to ensure there is an ample supply of natural gas. Curtailment happens for large, or industrial, facilities that agree to participate in a program that obligates them to switch to an alternate fuel for heating, in exchange for a discount on their rates. Households cannot have their natural gas supply curtailed.
The county usually gets curtailed once per year, Ford said, but added the length of this reduction is “out of the ordinary.”
The city of Grand Forks also is taking steps to lighten the load on the power grid, after Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday called on state residents to do the same. Both the water and wastewater treatment plants were expected to use backup diesel generators Tuesday for a few hours, according to City Administrator Todd Feland. Doing so serves two purposes.
“We are going to take some of the load off (the grid) just for a little while, and it serves the second purpose of exercising our generator,” Feland said.