Two-thirds of the U.S. population experienced blizzards, high winds, or frigid winter weather over the Christmas holiday weekend, leading to at least 52 dead and bring the power grid to the brink of collapse. And in many cases it did. At its peak at Christmas, I guess 1.7 million Businesses and homes suffered power outages.
It was the coldest Christmas in recent memory, which meant a predictable increase in heating demand as temperatures dropped. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies power to 10 million people, said demand was about to ramp up 35 percent higher than on a typical winter day.
In many states, utilities and grid operators narrowly avoided a larger disaster by asking customers to conserve energy or prepare for continuous blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily cuts power to avoid shutting down the entire system ). Some of the largest operators, including Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Energy, National Grid and Con Edison took advantage of continuous blackouts throughout the weekend. Texas also barely made it through the emergency. On Friday, the US Department of Energy gave the state permission ignore environmental emissions standards for keeping the power on.
A big transmission company that the regulators thought it would be Well prepared as the winter storm caught off guard: PJM Interconnection, which serves 65 million people in 13 eastern states, experienced three times as many power outages as expected.
Officials probably could have met the increased demand had it not been for some other predictable event that overwhelmed the system. The extreme conditions also froze coal and gas plants and pipelines, taking them out of service to provide energy in areas that run largely on gas.
The events surrounding Christmas show how utilities and regulators continue to overestimate the reliability of fossil fuels to provide power in a winter storm.
Frozen natural gas infrastructure cut into needed supply
It wasn’t that the country didn’t have enough gas to go around to meet the high demand. Gas was plentiful, but the infrastructure proved vulnerable to the extreme weather. Enough wells and pipes were frozen or broken to bring the power grid to the brink.
For example, for TVA, high winds and cold temperatures affected equipment at its largest coal-fired power plant and some of its natural gas-fired plants, according to the Chattanooga Times free press. “At one point on Friday, TVA lost more than 6,000 megawatts of power generation or nearly 20% of its load at the time, with both units at TVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant offline and other issues at some gas generating units,” the outlet reported.
It’s too early to know exactly what causes power outages in each state, but some utilities have struggled to generate enough power to meet demand. Early data of BloombergNEF shows that total fuel for heating and power generation for the province was about 10 percent below normal as of Monday.
Progressive blackouts and energy-saving warnings stemmed from the only factor large utilities could influence: consumer demand. Utilities have asked millions of people to keep their energy use low to weather the storms, putting off washing and dishwashers and keeping the thermostat low.
This is a broad strategy known as demand response, in which utilities try to shape electricity consumption by encouraging customers to change their energy usage to avoid peak hours. But even those consumer warnings to reduce energy use are a blunt, imperfect tool. As my colleague Umair Irfan explained, progressive blackouts result in power reduction “across the board without regard to who is most vulnerable, which parts of the power grid are closest to the edge, or where the most effective cuts can be made.” fitted.”
A focus on curbing energy demand has worked for specific events before, such as when California and Texas experienced heat waves earlier this year. But there are better ways the US can prepare for peak demand during a winter storm or heat wave. Part of the answer is better demand response, but that will require longer-term infrastructure investments in energy efficiency and smart metering.
This latest storm shows once again that fossil fuels are not particularly reliable in extreme weather. Yet much of energy policy focuses purely on supply – mining and extraction, and how much oil, gas and coal are in reserve. It is often taken for granted that this stock will always be available. In the meantime, we have failed to build more important infrastructure in our energy system; more energy storage, distributed power generation, interconnections between the major power grids, redundancy and demand response are all needed. Simply adding more gas or coal to the grid will not prevent power failures in the future.