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Polar vortex causes issues

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ASHLAND – With temperatures that didn’t even reach zero during the day and warnings of rolling electrical blackouts, the early part of the week was a frigid nightmare.

The area was blanketed by an arctic air mass that created high temperatures of only -5 on Monday and 2 below on Tuesday. The temperature plunged to -30 Monday night. Winds were expected to push the “feels like” temperature to 50 below, which could cause frostbite in a matter of minutes.

Temperatures in the single digits began last week, and by Sunday the thermometer struggled to reach zero. In February, temperatures usually average 38 degrees for a high and 15 for the low.

School was cancelled by the frigid temperatures across the area on Monday and Tuesday. Ashland-Greenwood Superintendent Jason Libal said the dangerously cold wind chills made waiting at the bus stop, walking to school or even riding the bus dangerous for students. Treacherous wind chills that were expected to last until noon on Tuesday meant a second day off in a row for Bluejays, a difficult decision for administrators given that the district already had scheduled days off Thursday and Friday. As a result, Wednesday was the only day school was in session.

“Obviously, having our students in school is our utmost priority,” said Libal. “However, we must always put their health and safety at the forefront.”

The school calendar will be impacted by the decision to cancel school, Libal said.

“Our administrative team will be meeting early next week to map out any necessary changes,” he said. “I am holding out hope that we will not need to use any additional days this spring, and that we will be able to turn the corner related to this difficult weather pattern.”

The extreme cold not only caused a strain on the school calendar, it also strained the country’s electric system. Most public power districts in the area get power from the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a wholesale provider that covers a 17-state region from the Canadian border to Texas. The extensive cold temperatures across the nation led to record energy demand in the SPP region, more than four times the amount normally needed at this time of year. The increase in usage stressed the system, which threatened service reliability.

As a result, SPP raised its emergency alert to level 3 and asked members to cut back consumption. As the situation worsened, SPP warned customers that energy curtailments may be necessary to balance the supply and demand of electricity. Utilities across the area warned customers there could be “rolling blackouts.”

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Customers across the area were asked to only use power for necessities. The utilities asked customers to delay activities like baking, doing laundry and running space heaters until after the shortage is over. Small things like shutting off extra lights, unplugging electronics and appliances that are not being used, shutting blinds and shades and lowering the thermostat to 68 degrees at night were also suggested.

OPPD, which supplies power to Ashland, asked its larger customers to curtail usage along with the suggestions for residential users to cut their power consumption. At 12:09 p.m. Monday, the utility began coordinated outages in the Omaha area, beginning in the Bellevue area, but were stopped by mid-afternoon.

Janece Mollhoff of Ashland represents District 7 on the OPPD board of directors. On Monday, she said that additional rolling power outages were likely avoided by people taking even little steps to cut back electric consumption.

“The measures OPPD customers are taking is helping reduce demand, so that helps,” she said Monday in a comment on Facebook.

The Village of Greenwood, a customer of OPPD, warned residents on social media and its website Monday that rolling blackouts lasting 30 to 60 minutes long could take place without warning. As of Tuesday morning, however, no blackouts had taken place.

Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), which supplies electricity to Wahoo, asked customers to voluntarily conserve energy until midnight Wednesday to stop widespread and longer-lasting outages. Wahoo Utilities warned its customers that rolling blackouts could occur Monday and Tuesday. As of Tuesday morning, no planned outages had occurred.

Lincoln Electric System (LES) shut power off to about 2,500 customers in southeast Lincoln on Monday afternoon, but only did two cycles of blackouts that day.

SPP also asked its members to increase electricity generation where possible. NPPD fired up its natural gas-powered plant in Lexington. Wahoo Utilities said on the city’s Facebook page that it was using the city’s power plant to generate as much of its own electricity as possible, but they could not make enough to power the entire community.

The blast of icy air was caused by a polar vortex that pushed air from the Arctic into Nebraska. Record lows were broken Monday across the state, according to the National Weather Service. The record for Omaha was -12 degrees, previously set on Feb. 15, 1936. The new record, -15, was set Monday. Hastings hit -26 on Monday, but Valentine claimed the lowest temp with -33.

The majority of the US was affected by the frigid weather, with more than one-third of the country below zero on Monday, according to an article on cnn.com. Wind chill warnings and advisories stretched from the Canadian border to Mexico.

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