A schematic of Russell’s electric power system is drawn in detail on the office whiteboard of Russell Utility Director Duane Banks.

Banks and engineers from area power providers are sorting out ways to tie-in Russell to an additional power transmission feed.

A second tie-in would prevent 16-hour blackouts like the one the city suffered a week ago Thursday, Banks said.

“An alternate feed would be an ideal solution, but it’s very costly,” Banks said. “I have engaged with an engineer to look at this very item …. and I’ve met with Sunflower Electric with conceptual ideas for an additional feed. These are things we’ve looked at to make a more reliable feed.”

But a solution like that won’t come cheap. The lowest cost option so far is $3.5 million, he said.

In the meantime, a portable transformer installed by Western Cooperative Electric, WaKeeney, and Sunflower Electric Power, Hays, replaces the one that failed. It has the city covered, Banks said.

“I don’t feel insecure about the mobile transformer at all,” he said. “And when they make the transfer to the permanent one it should be seamless. There shouldn’t be any outage.”

Banks said he expects Western Cooperative and Sunflower Electric to make the transfer any day. But rain delayed the process, he said.

The transfer will occur "Possibly tomorrow," said Western Cooperative's Dennis Deines, members representative, referring to Wednesday.

Russell’s power went out Aug. 29 when the transformer tripped a switch after failure of a load tap changer, a mechanical part that ensures the transformer operates safely and efficiently, at a Western Cooperative substation three miles east of Russell.

Russell does have its own power generating units. But it also participates in the multi-state Southwest Power Pool grid so it can rely on the Western Cooperative substation for power.

As members, Russell and other small cities both draw power and contribute power to the grid. Participation by eight states, including Kansas, lowers overall electricity costs for consumers.

The problem is that Russell, like other small cities, has one lone tie-in to the Southwest Power Pool through a three-mile transmission line to the Western Cooperative substation.

Banks advocates multiple connections for greater reliability. He’ll present that option this afternoon at the Russell City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting.

The way the grid works, on any given day the Southwest Power Pool will dispatch Russell to generate anywhere from 6.5 megawatts to 13 megawatts to contribute over a specific length of time based on forecasts for power across the grid.

“When we run our own generation, we’re really serving our own load, but it’s displacing what’s drawn from outside,” Banks said.

If the tie-in goes down, then ideally Russell generates its own power.

But that’s not what happened Aug. 29. Instead, operational and mechanical errors failed to bring the lights back on. 

“It’s a completely different world operating separate from the grid than when you’re on the grid,” Banks said. “Small errors are magnified when you’re separated from the tie.”

Most of the city’s mechanical issues have been fixed, with the exception of a few that will take more time and investment.

Human error was the other factor, Banks said, but nothing for which any employee should suffer a reprimand.

It’s rare to be separated from the grid, and typically that might only happen in severe weather, such as a tornado taking down the transmission line to the substation. Operators are trained to respond, but that’s not the real thing.

“Bringing everything up from black isn’t something for which we get practice; I don’t imagine that would go over well at all,” Banks said. “You can simulate as much as you want, but you can’t simulate every different caveat that changes operations.“

Western Cooperative’s mobile transformer is reliable, but it does place a limit of 18 megawatts on what the city can draw through the tie, Banks said. Normally the city can pull as much as 30 megawatts. As a result, the city must throw on some of its own generation to cover Russell and 50 square miles in the rural area of farm and oilfield activity.

The city’s peak is typically anywhere from 17 megawatts in the winter to 25 megawatts in the summer.

The cost difference between the grid and Russell power is $30 to $40 a megawatt, Banks said, or about three to four cents a kilowatt hour.