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Kentucky utility regulators investigate LG&E/KU over Winter Storm Elliott

Main Street in downtown Louisville is shown covered in snow, with cars driving down the road. The giant golden copy of Michelangelo's statue of David is visible off in the distance.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
Louisville has weathered snow and freezing temperatures many times, but Winter Storm Elliott sent temperatures diving below zero degrees in Dec. 2022.

Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities organized rolling blackouts that impacted nearly 55,000 customers in December 2022. Now, the state’s Public Service Commission is launching its own investigation.

In the days leading up to Christmas that year, Kentuckians weathered subzero temperatures. Winter Storm Elliott wreaked havoc across the state and the country, bursting pipes and causing power failures.

On Dec. 23, 2022, LG&E/KU implemented blackouts for the first time in their company history, leaving tens of thousands of customers without power for hours on the coldest day of the year.

Late last month the PSC announced a new investigation into what happened with LG&E/KU’s operations during Winter Storm Elliott.

“Specifically, the Commission will investigate the cause, impact, and result of the struggle, and ultimately the inability, to provide retail electric service at the level demanded from December 23 to December 25, 2022,” the PSC’s order said.

The commission also will investigate what LG&E/KU have done since then that “meaningfully affect the utilities’ ability to provide service during periods of variable weather and Bulk-Power System (BPS) stress.”

The PSC said it’s authorized to decide if a utility “failed to render adequate service” and to require any failures to be fixed. Financial penalties are also possible if the commission finds a utility willfully violated state regulations.

Daniel Lowry, a spokesperson for LG&E/KU, said in a statement the companies are happy to have conversations with regulators.

"Of course, we have previously provided significant information and awareness to state lawmakers and our regulators on the extreme winter storm that hit in December of 2022," he said.

Lowry told LPM News the utilities already took various steps to prepare for this winter, such as:

  • Reviewing and implementing their "power plant cold weather plans;"
  • Making software upgrades so their gas turbines can run at lower gas pressures;
  • Installing "weather protection around gas regulators supplying the gas turbines."

"LG&E and KU pride ourselves on our reliable generating fleet and continuously strive to improve our around the clock performance, especially during peak load conditions," Lowry said.

Utility officials initially said the power outages were primarily caused by problems with the regional supply of natural gas. However, information emerged last summer showing LG&E/KU faced multiple issues before and during the winter storm, including equipment trouble at both their coal and natural gas power-generating units.

“The Commission will determine whether the utilities, their officers, or agents were at fault or culpable for the inability to provide the required service, and if so, whether those actions were willful,” the PSC’s December order said.

The Sierra Club was among the advocacy groups that intervened in a PSC case last year over LG&E/KU’s operations and future power needs.

“I think it’s important to understand that the PSC’s order of an independent investigation indicates that there are serious problems with LG&E/KU’s response to Winter Storm Elliott,” said Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney for the Sierra Club.

She told LPM News the Sierra Club hopes the PSC will hold LG&E/KU accountable and require the utilities to take all necessary steps to “ensure that Kentuckians really have the protection that they need and deserve in extreme weather…”

Huddleston said it’s a myth that coal is a power source that’s 100% reliable at all times, as demonstrated by what happened during the holidays two years ago.

“We hope that there will be a serious examination of the failures of all forms of generation during Winter Storm Elliott, and of LG&E/KU’s response to those failures,” she said of the PSC’s new investigation.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.