Explained: Why the Panhandle is on a different power grid than the rest of Texas

Local News

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As millions of Texans deal with prolonged power outages, the Panhandle region has remained mostly unscathed.

As a result of this week’s extreme winter weather event, many people across the Panhandle have gone through short rolling-blackouts; however, they are not going days on end without power or water, like many in Texas’ metro areas.

The majority of the Panhandle is not on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) power grid. Instead, Southwest Power Pool serves Xcel Energy in the Panhandle and the South Plains.

Xcel Energy Spokesman Wes Reeves said the Panhandle joined the Southwest Power Pool in 1978.

“The United States is divided into three main power grids, kind of roughly divided by the Rocky Mountains. So, everything west of the Rockies is the Western grid, and everything east is called the Eastern grid,” Reeves said. “Then you have this little piece in Texas—not little, it’s pretty big—that is known as the Texas grid. It’s entirely within the state of Texas, it’s not connected to these other grids except for a few points where there might be some emergency access, but it’s not connected in the way we are with Oklahoma, and Kansas, and the neighboring states.”

Southwest Power Pool (SPP) is a regional transmission organization, a nonprofit corporation mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure, and competitive wholesale electricity prices on behalf of its members.

Xcel Energy said the southwest tip of Texas, which is the El Paso area, and some parts of southeast Texas are also not on the ERCOT grid.

Reeves said three Panhandle counties, Hardeman, Cottle, and Childress are part of ERCOT, although some parts of Childress County are served by co-ops that are part of SPP.

SPP spans 14 states which share excess energy—keeping balance, especially in times of high demand.

“So, that’s one of our advantages in many ways in this region because we have this ability to access a greater marketplace and move power in if we need to, export power out if they need it,” Reeves said on Wednesday.

He continued, “The problem in the last few days, is that the entire 14-state area has been suffering from the same issue and that is lack of natural gas for our power plants that burn natural gas for their fuel. It’s been way down curtailed sometimes as much as 30% of what we need to operate. So it’s been a real struggle and that’s not just been here, it’s been across this whole footprint.”

Reeves said Xcel Energy has spent plenty of time and effort weatherizing its power plants in the last 10 years.

“Our power plants have been available to run for the most part. You know, there were some other issues that we were able to take care of but I think we’ve done a good job of preparing for this,” he said, noting they need to get some supply issues ironed out during times of high demand. “That’s going to be critical to make sure that that fuel still flows in the pipeline.”

When asked about ERCOT, an independent service operator, Reeves said comparing SPP with ERCOT would be like comparing apples and oranges.

“We’re not exactly like. There are a lot of lot of big differences as to why we’re not part of that grid. But we were sort of isolated for many years up into this area. Isolation sometimes isn’t so bad, you know, it enables you to figure out things on your own,” Reeves said. “But the way we dealt with that isolation is we reached out to our nearest neighbors years ago and began building these lines and that was a wise investment on the part of the company officials during those days, because sometimes we’re just out here alone and things happen.”

Reeves continued, “So we’re we’re grateful that we’re part of this Southwest Power Pool, in spite of the fact that we’ve all had the same troubles in the last few days.”

During this winter storm, SPP President and CEO, Barbara Sugg, said while we have had minimal controlled outages, we are not out of the woods.

“The deep freeze is still here, you know, we are still in a situation where across our 14-state footprint, we have higher loads than we would ever have at this time of year,” Suggs said during a press call on Wednesday. “And that that presents challenges for us that we are still working through.”

As of Wednesday night, SPP declared an Energy Emergency Alert Level 2, which requires SPP to direct its member companies to issue public conservation appeals.

SPP said it was not directing any service disruptions. Xcel Energy said earlier this week rolling blackouts were a possibility through Thursday.

The Panhandle still needs to conserve electricity but the situation is not as dire on the SPP grid as it is for the ERCOT Texas grid.

“When we hear what’s going on in the rest of the state, it’s really different from what is happening here in the Panhandle,” said State Representative John Smithee (R-86).

Rep. Smithee serves on the State Affairs Committee, which oversees electric utilities and consumption.

He said over the years, the legislature chose to keep the Panhandle off of ERCOT.

“This goes back to the 90s when basically, Texas deregulated most of the electricity market in Texas, and at the time, Pete Laney was speaker. He was from Hale Center. And Pete and the rest of us in the Panhandle delegation were pretty adamant that we leave things the way we were. We saw no benefit to us in the Panhandle going in with ERCOT because we had the cheapest generation in the country here,” Rep. Smithee said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “I’m still glad that we’re not part of ERCOT and I think it’s benefited the Panhandle quite a bit.”

Rep. Smithee said there were warning signs about the Texas grid 10 years ago, during a similar winter storm in 2011, and as recently as 2018.

“The question is, did we properly respond in 2011? And the answer is probably no, it should have been taken a little more seriously,” Rep. Smithee continued. “And, and then you also realize now that 2011 wasn’t the worst-case scenario and for all we know, what we’re seeing now may not be a worst-case scenario. It might get worse than this in future years.”

Smithee said they need accountability. He said the first step is restoring confidence that Texans’ basic needs will be met.

“I think ERCOT has taken most of the blame for this and I think they certainly deserve some blame but you know, I think a lot of politicians are blaming ERCOT when I think we need to look around because I think there’s plenty of blame to go around here.”

Rep. Smithee said the State Affairs Committee will meet in Austin next Thursday, Feb. 25 to specifically discuss this electricity issue.

“I think this has given us a lot to think about a lot to act on. You know, still the most dependable source of electricity, in my mind is coal. But you know, our plants even in the Amarillo area, have transitioned and are transitioning off of coal or natural gas. That’s good in a way because you know, we are a producer of natural gas in this area but it still is a bit of a concern,” Rep. Smithee said.

He continued, “As we’ve seen, our gas supply has been disrupted, because of the cold weather and our wind supply has been disrupted because of the ice and the cold weather. So, when you lose those production capacities of fuel for your electric system, your demand goes way up, your supply goes down, and there’s a crunch in there and that’s what we’ve hit, fortunately, not as bad in this area as it has been in the rest of Texas.”


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