Mid-February’s polar vortex brought snow, ice and the lowest temperatures Texas has experienced in more than 50 years, interrupting power delivery to Big Country Electric Cooperative and escalating electricity demand to record highs that required rolling outages to protect Texas’ grids.
Throughout those outages, members of Big Country EC repeatedly asked why some people experienced outages when others did not lose power. That’s a very good question with a complicated answer.
First, the electrical grid can only operate within a very narrow frequency range amid a careful balance of supply and demand. If the frequency drops too low, the entire electric grid will go totally dark, requiring fixes that could take weeks. To prevent such catastrophic damage, grid managers mandated rolling outages during the polar vortex to keep the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and Southwest Power Pool grids from shutting down completely. Restarting the system from a complete shutdown is referred to as a black start, and black starts can take days to weeks to complete. So when power frequency starts dropping, rolling outages must begin. It’s not ideal but certainly better than the alternative.
Below are answers to some of the most common questions we received during February’s outages.
Why did the rolling outages not affect everyone?
Each utility received orders specific to its system. No utility company has an identical system or load profile to another. Therefore the orders each utility received and the load amount each had to shed, or turn off, were unique to that utility, its load and its location. Because some locations are more populated or use more electricity than others, their outage statuses varied. This is why some neighboring towns had varying off-on statuses that differed from ours.
About 80% of our system, from Snyder east, is part of the ERCOT grid. ERCOT load shed orders frequently changed because the statewide demand and supply of electricity were frequently changing as well. Demand continued to increase as temperatures dipped, and the capacity to meet that demand diminished.
Extreme weather conditions caused many generating units—across fuel types—to trip offline and become unavailable. More than 180 generating units tripped offline, due to factors including frozen wind turbines, limited gas supplies, low gas pressure and frozen instrumentation. At one point, more than 46,000 megawatts of generation were forced off the ERCOT system statewide. A megawatt serves about 200 households during peak demand periods. All of these factors were issues around the clock, which is why we couldn’t limit the rotations to a more ideal time frame.
These are also reasons why giving advance notice to affected members and predicting the duration of outages was extremely difficult: Conditions changed quickly and frequently, requiring immediate action by Big Country EC.
The remaining 20% of our system, Snyder west to Fluvanna, Justiceburg and Post, is in the Southwest Power Pool, a separate transmission grid from ERCOT that serves the Texas Panhandle and Midwestern states. The SPP was able to export some generation into the ERCOT grid until SPP went into a power emergency of its own. Thankfully this was short-lived in BCEC’s SPP area, which is why most of the area west of Snyder remained with power or experienced fewer and shorter rolling outages than our service area that is under ERCOT.
Some of Big Country EC’s circuits serve essential services such as hospitals, assisted living centers and communications towers and could not be turned off except in the direst of circumstances. All of our members are essential, and we did try to give residential areas top priority, shutting down as much other load as we could to leave homes on. Unfortunately, in this far-reaching instance, shutting down power to many homes was unavoidable. But rest assured we devised many complex scenarios to minimize the time your power was out as much as possible.
We all have families—children and babies at home and parents and grandparents whom we care for—and knowing we had no choice but to shut off power to many of you was heart-wrenching. We pride ourselves on restoring power as quickly as possible, but this time it wasn’t a matter of replacing poles, crossarms or wire—scenarios that we could have fixed. To the greatest degree, we had no control over this, and it made us as miserable as you were.
Why couldn’t BCEC or other utilities refuse the ERCOT directive?
ERCOT manages the flow of electric power to more than 26 million Texas customers—representing about 90% of the state’s electric load. As the independent system operator for the region, ERCOT schedules power on an electric grid that connects more than 46,500 miles of transmission lines and 680-plus generation units. Failure to comply could have resulted in catastrophic damage to the state’s electric grid, not to mention massive penalties and repercussions for those utilities who failed to comply.
Why did BCEC’s outage rotations vary in duration in certain areas?
The biggest factor to explain outage duration differences is something called cold load pickup. When the power comes back on after a blackout, our heaters have to work hard to warm our homes again. Pulling electricity off the grid in that scenario is similar to turning your bathtub faucet on wide open: You’re going to use a lot more electricity very quickly, much more so than under normal conditions, such as when you run your bathtub faucet at a moderate rate.
Now apply that scenario to hundreds of homes on a single circuit of our system coming back online simultaneously. When electricity starts flowing again, it can overwhelm the breakers, tripping the circuit back offline and causing secondary outages. The hazardous conditions created by the February storm made it difficult for our crews to reach locations to make necessary repairs, thus lengthening outages.
These factors make it extremely difficult to give advance notice or predict the duration of outages for affected members.
Will this make my rate go up?
Big Country EC’s rates are fixed. The co-op cannot and will not change rates without giving you proper notice, and plans to change rates because of the winter storm, rolling outages or for any other reason are not in the works. Reports regarding horrendous potential bill spikes circulating on social media do not apply to BCEC members.
Our members are billed for their actual usage at the current rate per kilowatt-hour shown on our website and your bill. Anyone without power during an outage, whether during a rolling blackout or any other outage, has no electricity use while they are without power. We will never bill you for energy you don’t use.
While we do not yet know the full financial impact of the winter storm, please don’t panic about your upcoming electric bills. Keep in mind that because of the extreme cold, your usage when the power was on was likely higher than usual, thus your bill may be more than expected, which is normal during extreme cold spells.
The power cost adjustment that you see on your bill could change due to limited gas supplies, but it’s still unclear how much of an impact that will have on the price of power we purchase on your behalf. To minimize the impact of this charge on our members, the PCA is analyzed monthly and every attempt is made to level it.
The PCA is the rate component on electric bills that is based on BCEC’s average budgeted purchased power cost of 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. The exact cost varies somewhat from month to month, which is why we base our rate on the budgeted average just mentioned. BCEC’s residential, farm and seasonal rate is $0.099665 per kWh; the difference between that and the cost of purchased power—about $0.039665 per kWh—is what we operate on.
While BCEC’s kilowatt-hour rate has not changed, members will pay more if there is a reduction of the PCA bill credit. Again, to minimize the impact of this charge on our members, the PCA is analyzed monthly and every attempt is made to level it, rather than pass on possible extreme monthly fluctuations from our wholesale supplier and to be more responsive to changes in fuel costs. BCEC will continue to monitor the cost of generating electricity, especially in this instance and may adjust the PCA as necessary.
How do I seek recourse for damages?
Gov. Greg Abbott requested a federal major disaster declaration for all of Texas’ 254 counties. President Joe Biden has since approved public assistance for all counties and individual assistance for more than 100 counties. The governor’s office continues to issue updates through press releases online at gov.texas.gov/news/category/press-release.
Damages to livestock from February’s weather events should qualify for reimbursement, so long as all other eligibility requirements are met. Farmers and ranchers are advised to contact their local Farm Service Agency office online at offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app.
BCEC members are advised to seek guidance from their insurance agent on seeking financial assistance with or reimbursement for damages associated with the winter storm or rolling outages.
Pursuant to your electric service agreement with Big Country EC, Continuity of Service Section 5: “If electric power or service should fail or be interrupted, or become defective, or be reduced through act of God, governmental authority action of the elements, public enemy, accident, strikes, labor trouble, maintenance, repair or upgrading work, or any cause beyond the reasonable control of Cooperative, Cooperative shall not be liable under the provisions of this agreement.”
Regardless of the nature of damage and whether recourse will be sought from your homeowners insurance policy or from possible federal or state assistance described above, members are advised to take pictures of all property damage and document it as much as possible. BCEC will do our best to provide updates in our upcoming publications about sources of public and individual disaster assistance.
What has Big Country EC learned from these events?
This is a long explanation, but the rolling blackout scenario was unimaginably complicated.
Here are the co-op’s key takeaways:
• Balance is important. Your energy supply comes from predominantly natural gas-fired generation, which typically is a great source of stable baseload power. The power emergency experienced recently was not a problem that BCEC or Golden Spread Electric Cooperative were responsible for. We’ve all heard the proverbial term “a perfect storm,” and this was it.
Will this ever happen again?
We sure hope not and we know you feel the same way. As you’ve likely seen in the news, the rolling outages are now a topic of government inquiry. You can expect to hear much more about state energy regulations that may change because of this experience. We’ll keep you posted.
Thank you to all of our members for your patience, understanding, conservation and support despite the most challenging circumstances many of us have ever experienced.