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2011-02-10

Arctic blast brings cold & rolling blackouts

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

About 6 am Wednesday, Feb. 2, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) issued notice to power suppliers that it would require firm load shedding to restore and maintain the electric supply system throughout much of the state as temperatures dropped into the teens in the Hill Country.
The directive was mandatory under state law, and as a result, left Bandera Electric Cooperative members in Bandera County without power periodically throughout the morning on the coldest day of the season.
Courier columnist Feather Wilson recorded 16ºF as the low for the week in Tarpley. Hondo National Bank's thermometer also flashed a cheery 16° to passing motorists.
According to BEC spokesman, Katy Haby, a series of rolling blackouts began at 6:15 am and continued until 12:30 pm. "We had four different events, each lasting 15 to 20 minutes each," said Haby. "The blackouts affected about 17,500 BEC members."
Haby explained that the local member-owned cooperative had no control over the timing of the blackouts.
ERCOT, which controls about 85 percent of the power grid serving about three-quarters of the land area in the state of Texas, determined when and where power to substations would be cut. "We have three substations which are classified as critical, and they will stay on as long as possible in most situations," said Haby.
"In more ordinary circumstances, we have people on our critical care list. We will try to notify them about up-coming power outages if we can and make every effort to get power restored to them first, but we had no control over this situation," she said. "There is no way we can opt out of the blackouts."
Haby reported that all BEC office staff reported for duty by 7 am Wednesday morning to help man the telephones. Staff also remained on call overnight to deal with any additional emergencies.
"Overall we were very happy with the way the system operated," said Haby. "Our only problem really was when power was restored. When all the appliances cycle on at the same time, the load spikes higher than what it was when the power went off. That load spike caused a few protective devices on power lines to shut off." She added, "In that situation, we have to dispatch a crew to restore power."
BEC members were encouraged via the cooperative's website to conserve electricity and reduce consumption by turning the thermostat down a few degrees, turning off lights around the house and unplugging appliances not in use. Haby described BCE members as "very cooperative and understanding."
While the power outages were certainly inconvenient, "Had ERCOT not made the call to shed the load through rolling blackouts, the entire power grid could have gone down," she explained.
The Bandera Independent School District weathered the crisis as well. Transportation Director Kay Miller reported no problems at all with bus transport during the four-day frigid cold snap. Superintendent Dr. Kevin Dyes said attendance was down to 81 percent on Friday, Feb. 4. The district has an average daily attendance of 95 percent. "It wasn't just the cold weather," said Dyes. "We've been dealing with a round of stomach flu at the various campuses and the cedar has added to the severity of allergies this year as well," said Dyes.
Under certain circumstances, the state education agency will allow a district to apply for a waiver to not count a day's attendance, and this arctic spell should qualify. "We'll apply for the waiver and Friday's low percentage won't count against us for state funding," explained Dyes. State tax dollars returned to school districts for funding are based on a formula that takes the average daily attendance into consideration.
Dyes said a decision to cancel school is a joint decision reached by administration, the transportation director and the maintenance director after consulting with Texas Department of Transportation ion personnel as well as with other school districts in the area.
"I drove out at 4:30 in the morning to check some bridges, but the TxDOT crews had already applied the chemical de-icer and the bridges were all okay," said Dyes.
Bandera High School experienced a very brief power outage and "we lost a couple of computers, but otherwise, we had no problems," he continued.
Faculty even turned the experience into a teachable moment, with first graders returning home to explain to their parents all about "rolling blackouts."
TxDOT's Maintenance Section Supervisor Todd Sandidge reported that the dry front caused few problems for his local crew. "Tuesday and Wednesday we had no ice at all, then Thursday night we kept the crews out all night," said Sandidge. "We had some moisture come in the wee hours of the morning, mostly in Bandera and east."
Three crewmen worked all the way down to Braun Road and Loop 1604, assisting other sections applying de-icer. "On FM 1283, from Hilltop to FM 471, we closed the road at the request of Medina County," said Sandidge. After some long hours, "we were all home and done by 2 pm Friday afternoon."