Power Lines

An AEP-Southwestern Electric Power Co. crew works on restoring power in April 2020 after a power line was brought down on Third Street in Longview.

The recent winter weather that left much of Texas cold and in the dark also left East Texans with a question: How was the Longview area mostly spared the same misery?

The answer to that question can be found before the start of World War II. The answer also can be found in modern times, as local leaders worked to keep electric deregulation out of this area. And finally, look to the weather itself, with a slight shift in what had been predicted saving this area from the worst of the ice and snow that left so many people across the state without power.

“I have a deep appreciation and concern for our neighbors throughout the state of Texas that suffered loss due to this event,” said state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview. “I don’t want to make light of that at all. During the height of the event, in all of Gregg County, I think we had maybe 29 homes that lost power and only for a short period of time.”

Dean, a former Longview mayor, spoke this past week after a day of listening to a joint hearing of Texas House committees with officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — ERCOT — and power company executives. ERCOT is a nonprofit organization that manages the electric grid for most of the state of Texas, with the exception of pockets around the edges of the state. The market was deregulated years ago, allowing customers within ERCOT’s service area to choose their electricity provider.

Longview and much of the rest of Northeast Texas, except for Smith County, chose not to enter into deregulation. This area does not and has never been a part of ERCOT. Instead, Northeast Texas is part of the Southwest Power Pool, which continues to be regulated. In Northeast Texas, and other parts of the state, AEP-Southwestern Electric Power Co. is the only electric provider.

“There (were) so many balls dropped because of that ERCOT system,” Dean said. “From communication — anything and everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”

Dean said he spoke to SWEPCO representatives before and during the storm for updates.

“In our situation, dealing with the SWEPCO, AEP, we’ve got one phone call to make,” he said, while people in the unregulated market might have to contact multiple companies in preparation for this kind of situation.

Since that initial rejection of deregulation in this area, a state law was passed that says deregulation won’t come here until someone can beat the electricity prices available through SWEPCO.

“That’s been, how many years? And no one has been able to do that,” Dean said, who added he has concern for the rest of the state.

“It sounds to me like we have a problem with our grid (ERCOT),” he said, and there’s a lot of work needed to fix that situation.

Origin story

The Southwest Power Pool celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2016. Unlike ERCOT, which was founded in 1970 and is completely inside Texas, the Southwest Power Pool manages the electric grid and wholesale power market for a group of utilities and transmission companies in 17 states.

“The electric utility industry developed from small suppliers who served customers using low-voltage lines during the latter part of the 19th century into monopolies controlled by a handful of holding companies by the mid-1930s,” the organization’s 75th anniversary book says. “Technologies such as alternating current transformers and steam turbines allowed savvy entrepreneurs to take advantage of economies of scale as they bought and consolidated the smaller companies.

“Progressive-Era reformers began to push for regulation of the growing industry at the state level, and by 1914, 43 states had policies in place to govern the electric utilities. States began to grant monopoly franchises with exclusive service territories while requiring the companies to provide service at regulated prices.”

Large holding companies began to buy up the utilities, leading to higher costs and allegations of illegal activity. That, in turn, led then-President Franklin Roosevelt to call for federal regulation.

“The issues of public versus private ownership and federal versus state regulation intensified toward the end of the Great Depression — until the beginnings of World War II shifted the nation’s focus and forced a truce between the competing interests,” the anniversary book says.

That’s where the Southwest Power Pool was born.

“Southwest Power Pool dates to 1941, when 11 regional power companies joined to keep an Arkansas aluminum factory powered around the clock to meet critical defense needs. After the war, SPP’s Executive Committee decided the organization should be retained to maintain electric reliability and coordination. After the Northeast power interruption in 1965, other reliability councils were organized,” the book says.

SWEPCO, which was at that time known as Southwestern Gas and Electric Co., was one of those 11 original members of the Southwester Power Pool.

While the Southwest Power Pool fared better than ERCOT, the record-breaking low temperatures also were a challenge for the organization.

“ERCOT and SPP each required reductions in electric load during the extreme winter weather emergency last week,” said SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main. “SPP required fewer and shorter controlled outages, limited to Feb. 15 and Feb. 16. It was the first time SPP has required this emergency action across its region in the 80-year history of the organization.”

In a letter on the Southwest Power Pool website, President and Chief Executive Officer Barbara Sugg said the week of cold temperatures, snow and ice was “the most operationally challenging week we’ve ever faced in our 80-year history...”

“Record-low temperatures hit the entirety of our service territory and stayed low for days on end,” she said. “The result was a simultaneous increase in electricity use at the same time power producers faced fuel-supply issues and equipment malfunctions: a perfect storm that stressed the bulk electric system to its limits. And, yet, with only two short-lived exceptions, SPP kept the lights on.”

Those interruptions were a last resort, she said.

“We did so only after exhausting every other option, including bringing emergency generation online, importing power from neighboring regions, and more,” she said. “We understand the critical role reliable electricity plays in your everyday lives, and that to go without it, especially in a prolonged period of extreme cold, puts lives and livelihoods at risk. Know that last week, the alternative would have been far worse, and had we not deliberately lessened our regional electricity use, we could have faced outages that were longer, more widespread, and more costly in terms of both lives and economics.”

Deregulation

For Dean, this experience seals the decision made years ago to keep electric deregulation out of Northeast Texas, even though this kind of situation wasn’t the driving factor behind that decision. He was mayor of Longview from 2005-15, just after the ERCOT service area was deregulated to allow competition.

Northeast Texas fought to stay regulated and keep SWEPCO as its electric provider.

“Back in 07-08, when I was mayor, and I was getting pressure that we should become part of the unregulated market — back then my decision on not joining that was based on, all the information we had, was that our residents were going to pay a whole lot more money for electricity than what we were paying,” he said, to the tune of 40% more for industry and 25% more for residential.

“The decision was strictly based on economics,” he said.

The “unreliability and inefficiencies” in the deregulation of the ERCOT market didn’t make sense, he said.

“And by the grace of God, it served us well during this event,” Dean said.

Degree of separation

Record-breaking cold weather early in the week of Feb. 14 was followed by heavy snow, sleet and ice days later.

Still, the Longview area didn’t experience widespread power outages as had been expected.

“I think the primary factor there was that the line between sleet and ice ended up further south than expected based on forecasts,” said Main, with SWEPCO, and the company had expected Longview and the Interstate 20 corridor to be hit hard.

He said a matter of a 1-degree shift in temperature made the difference. Instead, more icing took place south of Longview, in the Center-Teneha-Shelby County area and into Louisiana.

“That was really a matter of where that temperature line fell, and what could have happened with just a 1-degree difference in temperature. We had prepared for that possibility,” Main said. “We were in the process of bringing in hundreds of additional linemen and tree and support personnel and staging some of those in East Texas. We moved them further south to a staging area, a base camp, in Center as we saw where the damage was.”

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