Outages due to emergency/extreme weather event

A brief explanation of the electric grid

  • The electric grid is an extremely complex system with a sophisticated series of controls that monitor power coming on and off the grid, connecting energy producers to energy consumers.
  • Electric cooperatives combine their own transmission and generation resources with many other utilities across multiple states and provinces to power and strengthen this interconnected grid. This flow of power is monitored, coordinated and controlled through Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs). Two examples of RTOs include the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).
  • In our region, in addition to generating and transmitting hydroelectric power, the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), one of four wholesale hydropower marketing arms within the U.S. Department of Energy, provides transmission services for both private and public utilities and functions as a grid operator.
  • Most of the time controlling this power is uneventful. But during extreme weather events when demand is greater, the RTOs manage the power so that supply meets demand. Controlled power interruptions are a last resort to reduce demand when additional supply is not available, with decisions to do so being made in a matter of minutes.

The weather event that prompted an energy crisis

  • From Feb. 13–17, 2021, a winter/ice storm resulted in more than 170 million Americans being placed under winter weather alerts. The storm began in the Pacific Northwest and quickly moved into the Southern United States before continuing into the Midwestern and Northeastern United States.
  • This weather event caused an energy crisis increasing power demand throughout a multi-state region due to extremely low temperatures. It strained supply of natural gas for power generation, limited wind generation and forced some nuclear generation offline.
  • North Dakota’s electric cooperatives continued to monitor and manage loads, as they do during all severe weather events, as providing reliable power is paramount for co-op members.
  • In addition, electric generation cooperatives prepared for the ramp-up of baseload coal generation, which proved to be critical during the weather event.
  • On Tuesday, Feb. 16, SPP declared an Energy Emergency Alert Level 3. System-wide generating capacity dropped below their power demand due to extremely low temperatures combined with inadequate winterization of natural gas equipment. SPP directed WAPA to curtail loads and implement controlled service interruptions to prevent uncontrolled region-wide cascading blackouts. In each event, WAPA restored power in under an hour.
  • In a preventative measure, rolling outages were enacted to protect the stability of the power grid. At the urging of SPP, WAPA deliberately shut down parts of its power-distribution system in adherence to the agreed upon procedures. This action, known as load shedding, is used to relieve stress on the grid of generators and transmission lines to protect against widespread system failure. Most distribution cooperatives did not receive notice the outages were coming.  SPP and WAPA had to act fast and were not able to provide notifications for each event.  We all agree communications at all levels should be improved for future events.
  • Throughout the next several days, Capital Electric Cooperative worked with members, power providers and the media regarding this event.We continue to gather facts and take appropriate steps for the cooperative and our members to receive more timely communications should any event like this occur again.
  • This is the first time SPP has declared Energy Emergency Alert Levels 2 or 3 for its entire region. It is also the first time the grid operator has had to direct transmission operators such as WAPA to implement controlled, temporary service interruptions to prevent widespread blackouts.

Southwest Power Pool (SPP) manages the electric grid and wholesale power market for the central United States.

  • As a regional transmission organization, the nonprofit corporation is mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale electricity prices.
  • SPP and its diverse group of member companies coordinate the flow of electricity across approximately 60,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines spanning 14 states. The company is headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • The SPP serves nearly 19 million people across their service territories.


FAQ’s for Capital Electric Members

  • What happened to cause the rolling outages on Capital Electric’s system last week?
    • Southwest Power Pool, the grid operator in our region, reached its maximum load capacity based on the weather conditions from here to Texas. In addition, there were some supply issues in the hardest hit areas, including the freezing up of wind turbines and the lack of adequate natural gas supply. The Western Area Power Administration or WAPA is one of our power providers and serves as the Transmission Operator for our region. The grid is operated to ensure the best outcome for all members in the 14 state SPP area. WAPA was forced, within minutes, to shed load on their system and it affected some of our CEC customers.
  • Why wasn’t there any warning so consumers could be notified in advance?
    • When SPP reaches its Energy Emergency Alert level 3, there is a chance they will be forced to shed load. This has never happened before and SPP has been around since the end of WWII. When the demand reached critical capacity there was only minutes to act, so they informed WAPA to shed load and they did by dropping a line which affected CEC customers.
  • How many Capital Electric members were affected? How many members does CEC have?
    • In the first outage at 7:23 a.m., 4,917 meters were affected in Northwest Bismarck. This outage lasted 51 minutes. In the second outage at 8:43 a.m., 7,353 meters were affected, and this outage lasted 37 minutes. More than 12,000 meters is more than ½ of our 21,000 meters on our system, which includes Burleigh and southern Sheridan Counties.
  • Why does the power have to be shut off at the time we are getting ready and leaving for work?
    • The process to shed load only makes sense during the time when demand is pushing the upper limits of capacity. SPP had already utilized reserve power to try to ward off this process. To protect the grid from more serious damage, load had to be dropped.
  • What could have been done differently to help prepare people for the outage?
    • Because Capital Electric and the other cooperatives in the state affected by this outage were given no warning, we were unable to communicate with members in advance. We are working with SPP and WAPA on adjusting policy to give us more warning when this type of event is possible. At CEC we will do our best to provide multiple communications methods including texts, emails, social media and more. We already utilize most of these methods but will be working on enhancing our methods to be more responsive.
  • How do I stay informed about future CEC outage events?
    • The most effective and timely method of communicating important messages to our members is through emails and texting. We encourage all members to sign up for CEC’s SmartHub, either online or for through the SmartHub app and to ensure your contact information remains updated.
  • Is my power cost going to increase because of this event?
    • When a market’s supply of power is forecasted to be inadequate to cover the expected electric loads, the price goes up exponentially.Fortunately, Capital Electric Cooperative’s power suppliers, Basin Electric Power Cooperative and Western Area Power Administration, have adequate generation to produce their own power except for rare instances, as required by SPP.While some power may still be purchased in the market during these rare events, both power suppliers have active risk management strategies in place to temper any market extremes.Accordingly, Capital Electric nor our members will not see their electric rates change due to this event.
  • Why weren’t MDU or Otter Tail customers impacted by this event?
    • MDU and Otter Tail are served by a different energy market than Capital Electric, known as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).While SPP is structured with a single area to balance generation and load, MISO has three separate regions to coordinate.During the peak of the cold weather impacts on February 16, MISO took steps to shed load via rolling outages in their South Region (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and SE Texas).Because of MISO’s structural differences, the impacts to their market participants were contained more locally to the event.This concept of regional areas will surely be discussed with SPP as one option to help mitigate and/or avoid future similar events.


Basin Electric has provided an informational piece regarding its relationship with Southwest Power Pool. That document can be accessed by clicking the link below.

Click here for Basin Electric Article