Power companies learning from past winter storms

Reese Gorman, The Norman Transcript, Okla.
·4 min read

Feb. 28—Power companies in Norman are learning how to better prepare and react to winter weather events like the unprecedented snow and ice storms Oklahoma has faced over the last couple of months.

Both OG&E and the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative said customers' efforts to conserve energy during February's historic winter storm resulted in very few rolling power outages, and when they did happen, they only lasted at most three hours, the companies said.

Touching on the October ice storm that shook much of south central Oklahoma, including Norman, OG&E spokesperson David Kimball said that was the worst storm that has hit the company's infrastructure since 2007.

"Back in October we had 450,000 customers or 60% of our customer base that were affected," he said. "There was severe damage across our system. So some of the things we learned was that the upgrades that we made to our system after the 2007 storm made a big difference. because the outages that we incurred — even though they were large — we're certain that they would have been even harsher had we not implemented some of the technological advancements and enhancements that we made after 2007."

Although the technology OG&E has put in place appears to have worked, Kimball said two weeks to restore power is still unacceptable and enhancements need to continue to be made.

"We need to keep enhancing our grid," Kimball said. "We have a Grid Enhancement Plan in Oklahoma that we started last year, and we're going to continue it over the next five years. Also, upgrading and installing new equipment that will reduce power outages that are caused by trees by wildlife or by severe weather. A lot of that is smart grid technology."

Another lesson OG&E has learned over the winter storms of the last few months is the need for improved customer communications, Kimball said.

"[Communication] in particular, having to do with time to restoration," he said. "We implemented some new technology in terms of those (estimated times of restoration) in the middle of the October restoration, we thought it would provide some better information for our customers. It didn't. The implementation really didn't quite go as we hoped and it ended up causing a lot of confusion for our customers."

The company is also seeking to minimize the amount by which a customer's bill will increase over the coming months due to the winter storm, Kimball said. OG&E currently has a proposal in front of the Oklahoma Corporation Commision that would seek to do just that.

The proposal asks the OCC to extend the recovery period from a couple of months to 10 years so that customer's bills are not drastically affected.

"Over that week-long period we spent about a billion dollars in terms of natural gas and purchase power," he said. "We have a proposal to recover some of that this year. Beginning in April and through the rest of the year, but then similarly to spread that out of a 10-year period. We want to keep that increase for the average residential customer below 10%."

OEC, which is not governed by the Oklahoma Corporation Commision, has already implemented a 10-year plan much like OG&E's.

"One of the biggest costs from the storm was the extreme cost of fuel," said Autumn McMahon, manager of marketing and member relations for OEC. "So, in order to make sure that does not hit our members, that is being spread out and paid for over a 10-year period so that it will not affect members' bills."

Although a lot of power was being used over the course of the winter storm, McMahon said OEC customers' willingness to voluntarily conserve energy made a bad situation a little bit better in terms of the rolling power outages not lasting longer than they did.

"The brief controlled outages were incredibly effective at making sure that we had electricity long term," she said. "Looking forward, especially in the coming months, members' bills will be higher based solely on the amount of energy that was used. If you calculate the number of hours that their electrical appliances were running, they were running 264 hours non stop."

With this year's unprecedented bad weather becoming more expected moving forward, both organizations said they plan to better communicate with their members when severe weather events like winter and ice storms do take place again.

Reese Gorman covers COVID-19, local politics and elections for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.