011918 MISO Entergy power map.jpg

Louisiana Public Service Commissioners want an investigation into what led an organization that manages power for much of the state to urge customers to reduce electricity usage to avoid periodic blackouts during this week's brutal cold snap.

Commission Chairman Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie, said he wants to find out why there were shortages of electricity.

“There’s no reason in the state of Louisiana for electricity to become short,” he said.

The situation was bad enough that some industrial customers who have contracts with power companies were warned that their electricity could be turned off to keep power flowing to households and other businesses, Skrmetta said.

Can't see video below? Click here.

More than a dozen utility companies across the state, including Entergy Louisiana, Entergy New Orleans, Lafayette City-Parish Consolidated Government, South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association and Cleco Power, are members of Midcontinent Independent System Operator. MISO is a nonprofit that manages the generation and flow of electricity among member utilities in an area stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Canada.

Mark Brown, a spokesman for MISO, said the system’s South region, which includes much of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and East Texas, had set a record Wednesday morning for peak winter power usage.

At the peak, customers in the area used 32.1 gigawatts — enough power to light 3.2 billion LED bulbs. That was “very close to available capacity," Brown said. That set up the precautionary request on Wednesday to conserve power Thursday morning, edging the peak down to 30.9 gigawatts for MISO South.

In comparison, the all-time summer peak for MISO South is 32.6 gigawatts.

Kent Fonvielle, director of external affairs for MISO South, said a combination of factors led to the request for customer's to reduce power usage: extremely cold temperatures throughout the region that bumped power consumption to record levels and a tight supply of power because of planned or forced outages at generation stations.

Skrmetta said as far as he knows, no power generation stations in Louisiana were down during the cold snap, but he wants to get information about any system outages from MISO.

MISO South did take steps to purchase power from neighboring utility systems to ensure the grid is reliable, Fonvielle said. Blackouts were avoided, Brown said.

On Wednesday afternoon, MISO South asked utility members to make a public appeal to customers, asking them to take steps to conserve power from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursday. MISO suggested telling utility customers to lower their thermostats to 68 degrees and delay chores such as washing dishes, doing laundry and showering to help reduce power usage.

That appeal was lifted before 11 a.m. Thursday as weather conditions and temperatures improved.

Fonvielle said making a public appeal for customers to conserve power is one of the latter steps the service takes during extreme weather events.

PSC Commissioner Dr. Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge, said the agency will do a “full post-mortem analysis” of how utilities handled the freezing temperatures to find ways to better respond to these incidents in the future.

This means getting information from contracts between the utility companies and MISO, to better understand where the strengths and weaknesses are in the system, Skrmetta said. “The time when peak demand of electricity comes is when citizens are at the highest level of risk,” he said. “It’s either extremely cold or extremely hot.”

Logan Burke, executive director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a statewide consumer group that lobbies for environmentally responsible energy, said the situation highlights the power of utility conservation and efficiency. Louisiana residents use the most electricity per household in the country.

“We’re happy to see the system is able to manage such extreme weather, but the lesson we should be taking away from all this is how to improve the system,” she said.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.