Will the Power Grid Survive Another Polar Vortex?

Oct 09, 2014 - 9:00am

Senior Editor, Digital Content

“This country did not just dodge a bullet ― we dodged a cannon ball.”

That’s how Nicholas Akins, CEO of American Electric Power (AEP), described the situation last winter when the polar vortex hit the United States and put tremendous strain on the power grid.

John Kemp at Reuters writes how the power grid barely held up to the cold temperatures and notes how a reduction in fuel diversity played a role:

Since the late 1990s, most new power generating units have been built to burn natural gas. Unlike coal or oil, gas is not usually stored on site, so generators rely on real-time deliveries from the gas pipeline network.

In many cases, generators relied on purchasing extra gas in the spot market to meet peaking electricity demand. But with gas consumption also hitting record levels, generators were unable to contract for sufficient volumes and arrange for delivery through an already congested pipeline network.

The increase in gas-fired generation has introduced an unanticipated and dangerous link between the gas and electricity systems - with the risk of common failure.

According to NERC [North American Electric Reliability Corporation], gas supply problems led to losses of 620 MW of generation in the Midwest, 3,300 MW in the Northeast, 11,000 MW in the Middle Atlantic states, 2,000 MW in the Southeast and around 2,000 MW in Texas.

Thankfully coal-fired power plants were still available to support the grid, as I wrote in April [emphasis mine]:

AEP generates electricity in the region, and company CEO, Nicholas Akins told shareholders on a conference call last week that 89% of his company’s coal-fired plants scheduled to be shut down in 2015 were running during the cold snap.

But what about the next severe cold snap? Federal policies like EPA’s proposed carbon rules could mean those coal-fired plants won’t be there to keep the lights on and heat homes.

This is why electric resource diversity is critical. Since natural gas is used for both electricity and heating, and regions like the Northeast have natural gas “infrastructure constraints,” killing coal use will put more stress on natural gas infrastructure and make the power grid more vulnerable.

The lesson to be learned from the polar vortex, FirstEnergy CEO Tony Alexander told an audience at the U.S. Chamber in April, is “We need to maintain a diverse fleet – including real generating assets such as coal, nuclear and natural gas – to ensure reliable, affordable service over the long term.”

No matter how the winter will be this year, we need federal policies in place that maintain fuel diversity and the security of our electric grid.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.