Mid-South prepares for another potential round of rolling blackouts

Published: Dec. 23, 2022 at 6:07 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis and Shelby County experienced a power crisis on Friday not seen in the Bluff City in half a century. The utility issued rolling blackouts to try and conserve energy by order of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

More than 30,000 of MLGW’s 440,000 customers lost power because of the severe cold weather, ice and snow, which downed trees and power lines.

But thousands more lost power suddenly around 11 a.m. Friday because of rolling blackouts set in motion by TVA’s equipment failure.

“Now, this is a common phenomenon in other parts of the country,” MLGW CEO Doug McGowen said at a media briefing, “But this is the first time we’ve had to do this here in recent history in at least the last 40 or 50 years.”

The rolling blackouts were canceled almost as soon as they started, with TVA scaling back on the curtailment, but in that time, the number of outages was a roller coaster, going from 13,000 to over 40,000 and back below 20,000.

Then, 6 p.m. Friday night, MLGW warned it could happen again.

When ordered, temporary outages will begin in the areas of North of Downtown, vicinity of Ben Hooks Library, and North Germantown. If necessary, the next areas affected will be areas near Central Gardens/Midtown, Getwell & 240, South Germantown/Winchester and East Germantown/West Collierville. As needed, we will rotate in 30-minute intervals throughout the rest of the service area. As soon as the Step 50 order is recalled, MLGW will notify customers and restore power.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water

“As quickly as it came on,” said McGowen, “I think we would all be wise as to be prepared in the event we have to go there again.”

In addition, residents in Southeastern Memphis and Southeastern Unincorporated Shelby County are currently experiencing low water pressure.

Customers in these areas are asked to limit water usage to essential use only until further notice.

McGowen said the city-owned utility had little notice before the federally-owned TVA issued a Step 50 curtailment, asking all 153 power companies in the seven states TVA serves to cut power use by 5 to 10%, citing “unprecedented demand” with the subzero weather conditions.

“We apologize for the disruption that we know these actions may cause, especially during the holidays,” said TVA spokesperson Jim Hopson. “They are difficult but necessary steps to prevent greater power disruptions to the region.”

Earlier in the day, TVA tweeted its “diverse power generating fleet” was meeting the power demand, but problems reportedly occurred at several natural gas and coal plants, bringing TVA’s reliability into question.

Memphis City Councilman Chase Carlisle tweeted: “Congress must revisit TVA’s monopoly on power supply in our region...this is not political...it’s life and death for people over the coming days.”

“I do know [TVA] have substantial ability to generate power,” McGowen said during a noon press conference. “I do not know yet what the issue is that’s causing [them] not being able to meet the demand in this way, except that we do have very bitterly cold temperatures and increased demand for power.”

TVA reported they experienced an “all-time peak December power demand on Friday,” which affected their ability to keep up with an unprecedented demand.

“Normally during this time of year, our system manages demand around 24,000 MWs. We are seeing peak demands from 30,000 MW to 32,000 MW,” said Scott Brooks with TVA.

Brooks says TVA is working to ensure the impact is short-lived on customers, especially with warmer temperatures on the horizon.

The MLGW board recently voted down a 20-year deal with TVA, as Memphis leaders grapple with deciding who should supply the city’s energy in the future.

CEO McGowen sidestepped the question about sticking with TVA, focusing instead on getting power back to customers.

Temperatures have reached dangerous lows, concerning for residents like Danterio Johnson.

“Right now, all I can tell everybody is to bundle up,” Johnson said.

Johnson lives in Hickory Hill, one of the most affected neighborhoods in the MLGW coverage area.

Others include East Memphis, Cordova, and Whitehaven, according to the utility company’s outage map.

“There are six of us in our house,” Johnson said. “Everyone in here is bundled up, under the covers, cuddled up, everything.”

“We’re working hard to get you back on,” McGowen said, addressing customers experiencing outages. “We have a number of crews... out at work right now.”

We saw several crews in the Hickory Hill neighborhood, working against the clock and the thermometer to get customers back online.

In the meantime, those with power are being asked to reduce excessive energy consumption.

“When you leave a room, please make sure the lights are off,” McGowen said. “If you don’t have to run your washer and your dryer, which are high consumers of electrical energy, please do not do that until the temperature has warmed up and we’re out of this hazard.”

If MLGW has to resume rolling blackouts, the utility said the 30-minute temporary outages would begin in areas north of Downtown, near the Benjamin Hooks Library, and North Germantown.

The best way to avoid rolling blackouts is to conserve energy.

Don’t use your washer, dryer or dishwasher for the next 24 hours.

Keep the thermostat set no higher than 68. Turn off appliances that aren’t being used.

MLGW plans another media briefing Saturday at noon. 

The utility did not provide an ETA Friday night on when all customers’ power would be restored.

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