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How do power companies decide which customers to black out?

Winter Weather Missouri
Posted at 10:59 AM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-17 11:45:48-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While rolling power outages might be familiar for those in the western United States, they haven’t happened in several decades — or ever — for most of the Midwest.

The sudden need for temporary rolling outages Monday and Tuesday amid sub-zero temperatures and a spike in energy consumption led many to question how utility companies decide which customers to temporarily shut off service for and whose power remains on.

According to Chuck Caisley, senior vice president marketing and public affairs for Evergy, the decision-making process happens quickly.

Caisley said the Kansas City area's power utility had less than 15 minutes Tuesday after being told by the Southwest Power Pool to reduce the electrical load on the power grid before actually cutting off power to customers.

During that brief period, the utility knows certain customers take priority — places like hospitals, places that are coordinating the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and pumping stations that help keep fuel such as natural gas used to heat homes running.

After that, the utility company identifies customers from across all regions of its territory, including rural and urban locations at the same time, that when added together represent the amount of power they’ve been asked to remove from the regional grid.

Caisley says it’s practically impossible to provide customers with advance warning of a pending outage, because the decision-making is nearly instantaneous.

In an effort to reduce the impact of the outage, the company rotates which customers are without power every 30 to 90 minutes for as long as the electrical grid is out of balance.

Despite the attempt to limit the duration of the outages, an Evergy spokesperson said late Tuesday morning that they are looking into reports that some customers have been without power for a longer period of time and are working to restore power to all customers.

The Southwest Power Pool, a collection of utility companies in 14 states that are interconnected and have a reciprocal relationship, announced that it has suspended the need for rolling blackouts as of 10:15 a.m.