Powering the Panhandle
New partnership reduces outage times, increases economic prosperity
Photo by James Pratt
Blink. Blink. Blink. Darkness.
There’s a fault on a high voltage power line in the western part of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Maybe lightning caused it. Maybe an animal did. The cause is not as important as getting the lights back on for hundreds of people and businesses.
The service technician for the area leaves his family to ride the line to look for a cause and make repairs. The operations team at Tri-County Electric Cooperative (TCEC) examines their options.
Before January, this major outage could have lasted hours until the fault was found—which is like looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes. Now, the transmission system is looped and the cooperative can re-route power to turn the lights on while they continue to look for the outage cause and make repairs.
They re-route the transmission feed. Lights come back on. The service technician finds the fault and makes repairs with the help of the on-call crew. The lights go off for a minute or two when the system is returned to normal. Overall, it’s a minor inconvenience.
While this is a hypothetical situation, it’s all too possible. The local electric cooperative, TCEC, serving the Oklahoma Panhandle and surrounding areas, including about 1,000 members in Elkhart, Kansas, grappled with prolonged outages for members due to limited options on its infrastructure for years before finding a solution.
In 2016, TCEC formed a partnership with GridLiance High Plains, an independent electric transmission utility holding company. GridLiance High Plains acquired ownership of about 410 miles of transmission lines from TCEC. GridLiance High Plains invested in infrastructure upgrades to the transmission system over the next four years.
“All of the upgrades were focused on taking what was previously a radial system with no redundancy such that any single point of failure could result in everybody on a line losing power,” said Brett Hooton, president of GridLiance High Plains. “We tied those facilities together to create redundancy. In simple terms, we built a couple of substations, rebuilt a transmission line and built a new line.”
Hooton said creating redundancy reduced the ‘frequency, magnitude and duration of outages’ for TCEC’s members. The improvements also resulted in over $440 million total economic benefit to the region according to an economic impact study conducted by Oklahoma Panhandle State University.
The study’s authors, OPSU Vice President of Outreach Ryan Blanton, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Agribusiness Abbas Aboohamidi, Ph.D., said, “By taking the total investment made by the cooperative and the utility, and modeling not only the direct but also the additional indirect and induced effects, we found that the total estimated economic impact was more than $440.3 million. This is a significantly larger benefit to the region than GridLiance High Plains’s investment of approximately $87.3 million. It’s the equivalent of a return in the community of over $5 for every $1 spent on this project.”
Hooten said, “While the economic impact is important, what is more important is ensuring reliability to residents and businesses in the Oklahoma Panhandle. We want the transmission reliability to be such that it attracts new industry and makes the area a better place to live for those already here or looking to locate here.”
In 2019, Seaboard Foods announced significant upgrades at its pork processing plant in Guymon, which is served electricity by TCEC. An economic analysis by MarksNelson projected that the upgrades will add 198 new employees to the company, $6.5 million in annual income, $11.2 million in value added to the local economy and $38.5 million in increased economic output. The expansion wouldn’t have been possible without reliable electricity.
“With farm operations and a pork processing plant in the Oklahoma Panhandle, our operations must have a reliable source of electricity to operate,” said David Eaheart, senior director of communications and brand marketing for Seaboard. “On top of that, for our employees who live in the region, stable electricity is essential to a better quality of life.”
While darkness will never be fully eliminated, the partnership between TCEC and GridLiance High Plains is a bright spot for the Panhandle.
JuliAnn Graham, a regular Oklahoma Living contributor, is the communications manager at TCEC.