What Winter Storm Elliott Caused Power Outages for Millions | Daily News Byte


Two-thirds of the US population faced snowstorms, high winds or cold winter weather over the Christmas holiday weekend, leading to at least 52 deaths and pushing the power grid to the brink of failure. And in many cases it is. At its peak on Christmas Day, around 1.7 million businesses and homes faced power cuts.

It was the coldest Christmas in recent memory, and that meant a predictable rise in heating demand as temperatures fell. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides power to 10 million people, for example, said demand was nearly 35 percent higher than on a typical winter day.

In many states, utilities and grid operators have narrowly averted a major disaster by asking customers to conserve their energy or prepare for blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily turns off power to avoid a system-wide shutdown). Some of the largest operators, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Energy, National Grid and Con Edison, used blackouts over the weekend. Texas also barely made it through the emergency. The US Department of Energy on Friday allowed the state to ignore environmental emissions standards in order to stay on board.

One major transmission company that regulators thought would be well prepared for the winter storm was caught off guard: PJM Interconnection, which serves 65 million people in 13 eastern states, faced three times as many power plant outages as it expected.

Officials likely could have met the higher demand had it not been for another predictable event that overwhelmed the system. Due to the extreme conditions, coal and gas-fired power plants and pipelines also froze, shutting them down to deliver power to the predominantly gas-fired areas.

Events over Christmas show how utilities and regulators continue to overestimate the reliability of fossil fuels to deliver power in a winter storm.

Frozen natural gas infrastructure has been cut to the required supply

Not that the country didn’t have enough gas that needs to go around to meet the high demand. There was plenty of gas, but the infrastructure proved vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. Enough wells and pipes are frozen or broken to bring the network to the edge.

For TVA, for example, 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 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 generating plant offline and other problems at some generating units of gas,” the release states.

It’s too early to know exactly what caused the power outages in each state, but some utilities have struggled to generate enough power to meet demand. Early data from BloombergNEF showed that total fuels for heating and power generation in the district were about 10 percent below normal as of Monday.

The constant power outages and energy conservation warnings stem from one factor that the big utilities can still influence: consumer demand. Utility companies have asked millions of people to keep their energy consumption low to weather the storms by putting off laundry and dishwashers and keeping the thermostat on low.

This is a broad strategy known as demand response, where utilities try to shape electricity use by asking customers to change their energy use to avoid peak hours. But even those consumer warnings to reduce energy consumption are a blunt, imperfect instrument. As my colleague Umair Irfan explained, continuous blackouts result in power cuts “everywhere regardless of who is most vulnerable, which parts of the power grid are closest to the edge, or where the most efficient cuts can be made.”

A focus on reducing energy demand has worked before for certain events — like when California and Texas experienced heat waves earlier this year. But there are better ways the U.S. can prepare for peak demand in a winter storm or heat wave. Part of the answer is better demand response, but that requires long-term infrastructure investment in energy efficiency and smart meters.

This latest storm shows once again that fossil fuels are not particularly reliable in extreme weather conditions. Yet much of energy policy focuses solely on supply — mining and extraction, and how much oil, gas and coal is in reserve. It is often assumed that this supply will always be available. Meanwhile, we have failed to build major infrastructure throughout our energy system; more energy storage, distributed power generation, interconnections in the main power grids, redundancy and demand response are needed. Simply adding more gas or coal to the grid will not prevent blackouts from happening again in the future.


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