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Environment & Energy
WKSU is looking for the answers to the questions you have about Ohio in a project we call "OH Really?" It's an initiative that makes you part of the news gathering process.

Ohio Has Safeguards to Prevent Texas-like Power Outage. OH Really?

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Jno.skinner
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Wikimedia Commons
Snow covers the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin on Feb. 15, 2021. Winter storms strained the state's utilities, leaving more than 4.5 million homes and businesses without power.

We know Ohio weather can be unpredictable.

A listener asked our OH Really? team if Ohioans might ever see the type of power outages that Texas did when temperatures there dipped below freezing in February.

Listener Zev Rosenberg lives in Canton and gets his power from AEP Ohio. When he heard about people in Texas losing electricity for days, it got him wondering.

"Are we vulnerable to extreme weather events, if not in the same way, perhaps in other ways than Texas was vulnerable to that extreme weather event?" Rosenberg asked.

We connected with Matt Schilling from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which oversees the distribution of electricity in the state. "That's a really good question," Schilling acknowledged in a call with Rosenberg over Zoom. Schilling wrote about it recently on the PUCO website.

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Sarah Taylor
Matt Schilling (bottom) talks over Zoom on Friday, March 12, 2021 with WKSU's Sarah Taylor and listener Zev Rosenberg of Canton.

He explained to Rosenberg that Ohio is different because it’s part of a larger system.

"The generation and transmission sectors of Ohio's grid are actually interconnected, and overseen by an entity called PJM Interconnection," Schilling said. PJM is a nonprofit regional transmission organization (RTO) regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Schilling says FERC "oversees the generation and transmission grids of much of the country, and PJM has a robust planning process to ensure that there is always going to be enough power."

He says one way they do that more specifically than grid operators in Texas is by something called a capacity market. "That capacity market is intended to ensure that there are always going to be power plants that are on standby, ready to flip the switch as soon as PJM tells them there is a need for power in this area of the grid and we need you to turn it on tomorrow, turn it on next week or turn it on in five minutes," Schilling said.

Much like meteorologists forecast the weather, Schilling says PJM forecasts anticipated electricity demand. And he says they plan for a reserve margin, making sure there’s 15% more power available than is expected to be needed. He says they’ve learned from prior incidences like the 2014 polar vortex.

"The FERC implemented some enhancements to their underlying market constructs to better ensure that the power plant operators are prepared for the worst case scenario," Schilling said. "What actually happened in the PJM region a couple weeks ago is not only were they prepared, they were able to export power to neighboring states and lend a hand there, so that's another advantage of where Ohio is situated in that PJM footprint and generally the entire eastern seaboard, is kind of all connected into an interconnected grid, so we can rely on importing or exporting power where it's needed."

Ready for summer
Zev had a follow up question for Schilling: "What about extreme heat events? Because with climate change we are likely to see some of that as well."

Schilling noted that summertime is when much of the United States traditionally sees peak electricity usage because of the prevalent use of air conditioners. He says PJM has tools in place to address high usage periods then as well.

"What they do is the grid operator if they know tomorrow is going to be the hottest day of the year and the biggest electricity usage time they are actually able to work with large power users and, the technical term is called load shedding, but it's where they say, ‘Hey large power user would you be willing to shut down your facility or turn your power off for a few hours on the peak day?’ Because if we can lower the demand there is less need to ramp up additional power plants at that time."

Schilling also shared with Zev that PJM has in place controls for peak power prices, so it's unlikely we would see the kind of astronomical bills some Texans did.

And he noted power plants operate under engineering standards set by another nonprofit organization, the North American Reliability Electric Corporation.

"Several regulatory agencies, a lot of behind the scenes stuff that happens each and every day that hopefully you never notice because the power is always working," Schilling said.

But knowing Ohio weather, "to say it could never happen would be disingenuous. But PJM is actively planning for it, along with the states and regulators at various levels, to ensure that the lights will stay on," Schilling said.

Have a question for OH Really? Submit it below.

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