The Missouri Public Service Commission said Thursday that it will open an investigation into the operation of investor-owned utilities in the state, including Liberty, during the recent arctic temperatures.
Temperatures that fell as low as minus 15 degrees in Joplin on Feb. 16 resulted in rolling electrical blackouts and “extreme natural gas spikes in Missouri,” according to the PSC statement.
The low tied for the coldest temperature recorded in Joplin in more than a century; Joplin also hit minus 15 degrees in 1989.
At one point on Feb. 16, more than 10,000 Liberty customers were without power but usually for less than an hour or so, according to the Joplin-based utility, which serves more than 176,000 residential and business customers in the Four-State Area.
In its statement Thursday, the PSC said it is ordering its regulatory analysis and customer experience departments “to investigate Missouri’s electrical and natural gas utilities’ preparation for and response to Missouri’s February 2021 extreme cold and to report its finding to the commission.”
Ryan Silvey, chairman of the commission, said in an interview with the Globe that PSC staff would gather all other reports and investigations as part of the assessment.
“What happened here was not the fault of any one company,” Silvey noted.
In response to Globe questions, Liberty officials said that because of extreme low temperatures and record-setting demand, “we did underproduce energy levels necessary to supply energy to 100% of our customers on two occasions: once on Monday, Feb. 15 and once on Tuesday, Feb. 16. Both dates set record high peak loads for Liberty’s central region.”
During the times it underproduced, Liberty said it was supported by the Southwest Power Pool, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, which operates a regional transmission grid in parts of the Midwest, “and because of this support, our customers did not endure widespread or prolonged outages.”
During that week, SPP activated an emergency energy alert — a move it called “unprecedented” after exhausting all of its available reserve energy — and directed utilities and their customers to conserve energy. SPP ultimately directed its members to implement controlled interruptions of service in order to prevent more widespread uncontrolled blackouts.
“This effort helped to maintain the integrity and reliability of the transmission grid within the SPP system,” Liberty said.
Peak demand on Feb. 15 was approximately 1,190 megawatts, and peak demand Feb. 16 set an unofficial all-time peak of 1,220 megawatts. The previous winter peak was 1,211 megawatts on Jan. 17, 2018; the previous summer peak was 1,198 megawatts on Aug. 2, 2011.
Liberty officials said they were able to successfully generate power from all their generation facilities during the Southwest Power Pool emergency event but not at peak loads, citing fuel supply disruptions as well as some mechanical issues as a result of extreme cold temperatures.
On Feb. 15, Liberty said its share of Stateline combined cycle generation (nearly 300 megawatts capacity) was reduced by about 149 megawatts due to gas pressure limitations; Riverton 12 (275 megawatts capacity) was also reduced by about 65 megawatts due to gas availability. Plum Point, a coal plant in Arkansas of which Liberty is a partial owner, was reduced by 50 megawatts due to coal freezing up, which is half of its 100-megawatt capacity.
On Feb. 16, Stateline’s output was reduced by about 235 megawatts due to gas pressure limitations; Riverton was also reduced by about 100 megawatts and Plum Point was offline due to coal freezing up. Iatan, a coal plant in Kansas City of which Liberty is also partial owner, was reduced by about 25 megawatts. Iatan’s coal also was frozen.
“Liberty procured a sufficient amount of natural gas to run all our combined cycle generation plants at their maximum output,” the utility said. “However, natural gas system cuts caused by natural gas production facility issues and pressure issues on the pipeline restricted our ability to run our units at their maximum output, and instead they were required to run at the very bottom to maintain pressure and avoid causing potential service interruptions.”
Asked if its wind turbines performed as expected, both the ones it owns locally and the ones in Kansas from which it purchases power, Liberty officials said, “Yes. Our wind farms, though only partially completed, we believe outperformed what Asbury would have produced if the coal unit was still in operation. Because of the extreme temperatures, one challenge we would have likely faced was freezing coal similar to the challenges faced by Plum Point. One major benefit of our wind generation facilities is that there is no fuel charge.”
Liberty also said its systems have been winterized and “designed and built to operate reliably during cold weather events that periodically occur in our service territory.”
Following the 2007 ice storm, Liberty — then Empire District Electric Co. — said it made “significant investments and improvements across our distribution system to prepare for more extreme weather events.”
Effects of climate change
Silvey, with the PSC, noted that in Missouri, utilities have the ability to recover the costs of winterizing generation, from both renewable and thermal sources, and they can build those costs into rate base, meaning they are passed along to customers.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation also have announced inquiries. FERC also said this week that it will examine the threat climate change and extreme weather poses to electric reliability, and that will include not just cold weather but also wildfires, hurricanes and prolonged heat waves.
“The effects of climate change are already apparent, and we must do everything we can within our statutory authority to ensure that the electric gird is capable of keeping the lights on in the face of extreme weather,” FERC Chairman Rick Glick said in a statement.
FERC also said this week it will investigate whether any “market participants engaged in market manipulation or other violations.”
Liberty, in a statement, also said: “While this was absolutely an unprecedented and historical weather event, it will push us, and many other utilities, to improve our systems to better prepare for more extreme weather patterns moving forward. We are already having internal discussions about how we can prudently improve our systems to ensure safe and reliable service should weather become more severe.”
Liberty also said customers should expect higher bills coming in March, as well as later in the year because of the arctic weather.
Bills coming in March will reflect increased demand during the cold temperatures, as customers saw usage climb, even if the price per kilowatt-hour remains the same.
“This is not related to the fuel shortage that resulted in increased fuel prices the Midwest experienced,” Liberty said, “but rather the record low temperatures that we experienced in February.”
“Fuel prices do affect customer electric bills, but the impact isn’t immediate. We recover our fuel and purchased power costs from customers through the fuel adjustment charge, which is reviewed by our state commissions. Fuel prices through the FAC are adjusted every six months based on what was actually spent. This helps smooth the effect of fuel market prices and keep rates more balanced for our customers.”
The company said customers struggling to pay bills should call 800-206-2300 to discuss payment assistance and payment options.