MOORHEAD, Minn. — Across parts of Moorhead on Tuesday morning, Feb. 16, neighbors were calling each other with essentially the same question: "Is your power out?"

The answer for about 9,800 of the city's residents was "yes," as Moorhead Public Service temporarily disconnected some homes from the electrical grid as part of "rolling blackouts" that occurred throughout much of the central and southern United States Tuesday.

The controlled outages came in response to unusually cold weather in many parts of the country, which has put enormous strain on the electricity grid and caused power failures in many communities across the U.S., Moorhead included.

And with a cold front still gripping a large swath of the central United States, one of the Upper Midwest's primary power grid operators told residents and utility companies to prepare for the possibility of more blackouts Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, maybe stretching as late as Thursday.

Regional congestion on the power grid looms as an obstacle to further development of energy generation in North Dakota, prompting legislation that would require new wind farms to provide backup power sources -- action wind advocates say isn't needed to ensure reliable power. David Samson / The Forum
Regional congestion on the power grid looms as an obstacle to further development of energy generation in North Dakota, prompting legislation that would require new wind farms to provide backup power sources -- action wind advocates say isn't needed to ensure reliable power. David Samson / The Forum

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"It would have been nice if we had warning in advance," said Lynnette Wetch, a resident of south Moorhead whose power was out for about 20-30 minutes Tuesday morning.

Jasmine Merkens, a resident of the same Moorhead neighborhood, echoed Wetch's sentiments.

"I wish I would have been notified beforehand that something was happening," Merkens said, adding that her power was probably off for less than 30 minutes, which she said didn't cause much disruption for her household.

Jasmine Merkens talks about the surprising loss of power she experienced Tuesday, Feb. 16, in her south Moorhead home.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Jasmine Merkens talks about the surprising loss of power she experienced Tuesday, Feb. 16, in her south Moorhead home. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

"Luckily, we weren't making breakfast, or anything," Merkens said.

The temperature in Moorhead late Tuesday morning was around zero. Most gas furnaces will not operate without electricity and homes dependent on electric heat are particularly vulnerable to power outages.

On Tuesday afternoon, Moorhead Public Service offered an apology to its customers for the short notice regarding the blackouts. But for MPS and other local utility providers like it in western Minnesota, North Dakota and much of the central United States, these calls for rolling blackouts have come with little to no warning.

MPS said in a news release that it was notified about 9:20 a.m. Tuesday that blackouts would start at 9:50 a.m. The utility company then let the public know that blackouts, lasting about 30 minutes at a time for any given neighborhood, were starting and would continue indefinitely.

MPS was allowed to go back to normal operations after the first 30 minutes of the rolling blackouts.

The blackouts follow the directives of Southwest Power Pool (SPP), an electric grid operator serving 14 central U.S. states, including North Dakota, South Dakota and the western edge of Minnesota. SPP has gone in and out of Energy Emergency Alert Level 3, its most serious emergency status, in response to unprecedented strains on the regional grid prompted by the frigid weather in southern states.

The emergency marks the first time in the grid operator's 85-year history it has needed to take such drastic measures as controlled outages across the sprawling SPP footprint.

In a media call Tuesday afternoon, SPP officials said cold weather dealt two blows to the electrical grid by driving up demand from cold customers and forcing SPP to deal with a power shortage caused by limited natural gas supplies and trouble transferring energy from neighboring grids.

Consumer demand surged Monday and increased significantly more Tuesday, contributing to outages in the Upper Midwest, officials said.

SPP officials said they have done everything possible to avoid the blackouts, explaining that they waited until the last possible moment to interrupt service, making the final call within a matter of minutes, "if not seconds."

"We wish we could let people know in advance that their service is about to be interrupted," Lanny Nickells, the power pool's executive vice president, said on a call with reporters from around the country Tuesday afternoon. "The reason we don't is we wait as long as we can to make that decision," Nickells added.

The SPP grid covers large portions of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota's western edge, but the overlap of two separate grid systems in the Upper Midwest has meant that the impact of the rolling blackouts is spotty. Households supplied by Montana-Dakota Utilities or Xcel Energy, for instance, fall on a separate power grid, and both providers said Tuesday that they do not expect any outages for their customers.

But even as SPP said it has little ability to provide more warning time, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said in a news release that he urged top officials from the Western Area Power Administration, the upstream power supplier serving much of the Upper Midwest on the SPP grid, to give as much warning as possible of impending blackouts to utility companies and their customers.

"While we understand WAPA has received short notice from SPP to reduce load, North Dakotans deserve as much lead time as possible to prepare for rolling blackouts before their service areas are affected," Burgum said Tuesday afternoon. "These agencies also must ensure that rolling blackouts don’t have a negative domino effect by sidelining other energy sources from the grid, such as gas processing plants in western North Dakota."

The outages left thousands in Minnesota and the Dakotas without power for intermittent stretches, with most outages lasting from 30 minutes to an hour.

By early afternoon, grid operators had lowered their emergency status and put a temporary pause on rolling blackouts. But SPP officials stressed that the grid's stability remained tenuous and projected that their response could fluctuate between different emergency levels over the next 24 to 48 hours.

Demands on the grid are especially pronounced in the early mornings and evenings, as people wake up and as they return home from work, SPP officials said.

Outages also stretched to central North Dakota, where a spokesperson for Capital Electric Cooperative, which serves customers in Burleigh and Sheridan Counties, said that at one point as many as a third of its 21,000 customers were without power.

In South Dakota, more than 7,000 people were without power around 10 a.m. Tuesday, according to the tracker Poweroutage.us. One county, Beadle, in east-central South Dakota, had 93% of customers without power on Tuesday morning.

In Minnesota, MPS reported rolling blackouts between 10 a.m. and noon. MPS general manager Travis Schmidt said additional rolling blackouts were possible in the area again between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday night, and again between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Schmidt said MPS was splitting outages between two areas, so that when outages were called for one of the areas would be without power for 30 minutes while the other area still had power.

The two areas then reverse roles for the next 30 minutes, with the pattern repeating as long as necessary, Schmidt said.

Forum News Service reporter Jeremy Fugleberg, Dave Olson and Adam Willis contributed to this report.