Heat Waves and Cold Snaps Challenge Utilities

By Tom Tubman, Executive Director, American Energy Coalition

Utilities from coast to coast are struggling to keep the lights on due to supply limitations, inadequate maintenance and aging infrastructure. The utilities and regulators are quick to blame extreme weather, opposition to new infrastructure projects, and factors beyond their control, but others have pointed out that the utilities have failed to maintain and replace aging equipment. The latest example came from Southern California just two months ago when a widespread electric power outage hit the Los Angeles area, affecting tens of thousands. During a four-day period, over 80,000 people were without power at one point or another, some enduring blackouts for 55 hours or longer.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the largest municipal utility in the U.S., which serves more than four million residents, blamed the early July interruption on a prolonged heat wave that resulted in record demand for electric power. Electricity demand spiked at 6,256 megawatts on July 6, a record high for a July day in Los Angeles. On Saturday, July 7, the day after the lights started to go out, demand for power exceeded 5,700 megawatts, the second highest measure for a weekend day in Los Angeles history.

Prior to the outage, LADWP had assured Angelenos that they would have sufficient power available as the heat wave continued. Following the outage, LADWP maintained that it did in fact have sufficient power, and said (in a statement on the LADWP website) that the problem was due to “Unrelenting weather conditions and high energy demand [that] continue to strain equipment, ranging from underground cables, to overheated power lines, as well as larger scale equipment including overloaded power distribution stations and related equipment.”

Officials quoted by the LA Times said, “Aging infrastructure could not handle the surging demand for electricity as Angelenos ran their air conditioning day and night.” At one point more than 46,000 were without power.

Despite regular updates from LADWP, residents and commercial customers were very upset by the lack of credible information coming from the utility. After the initial outage on Friday, the utility said power would be restored in 12-24 hours; by Saturday evening, that estimate grew to 24-48 hours. On Monday morning, the fourth day of the outages, 7,000 were still without power. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that the number dropped below 2,000.

Here on the East Coast and particularly in New England, weather gets blamed for power outages on very cold days, not just on days of extreme heat. Those who remember the Polar Vortex from a couple years ago will recall that several areas were on the verge of rolling blackouts. But a larger problem for New England is the closing of coal fired and nuclear powered electric generating facilities. As the retirements grow, more reliance is being placed on natural gas fired plants. However, due to warranted environmental and economic concerns, new interstate gas transmission lines are not being built to feed the growing percentage of electricity being generated by natural gas.

ISO New England (ISO-NE), the electric grid operator for the six-state region, foresaw the growing infrastructure problem following the Polar Vortex and developed a “Reliability Plan” that looked for generators capable of burning oil to produce electricity. ISO-NE offered oil and dual-fuel power generators that also had significant onsite fuel storage financial incentives in return for their commitment to maintain a supply of oil and generate electricity using that fuel during the coldest winter days. It’s on these days when natural gas infrastructure is pushed to the limit and fails to fill the region’s residential and commercial space heating needs.

Liquefied natural gas imported via ships into a facility in Everett, Massachusetts also helps supply energy on the coldest days of winter, but over the last few winters, oil has kept the lights on during the coldest periods.

ISO-NE’s plan to have oil fired generators standing by paid off for utility customers last winter. During the cold snap that began December 25 and continued through January 9, oil fired generators burned close to two million barrels of oil, generating electricity not available from other fuels. During this period, Boston saw some of the coldest weather in 100 years, with seven consecutive days in which the temperature never rose above 20ºF. According to a recent report by ISO-NE, that hasn’t happened since 1918. And to add some context, those two-million barrels of oil burned during that 16-day stretch are actually about 10 percent more than the amount used on average by the State of Vermont to heat homes and business for an entire year.

Using oil to generate electricity might seem questionable to some from an environmental perspective. However, with biodiesel blends now in widespread use, it can actually be a more environmentally friendly way to generate electricity. As the biofuel component of distillate increases, oil fired power generation approaches carbon neutrality and may some day achieve carbon negative status, wherein the fuel will actually help pull pre-existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Heat waves and cold snaps are just two examples of utility challenges to keep the lights on. However, when it comes to space heating and domestic hot water, the fact remains that no one can measure up to a full-service heating oil retailer in terms of keeping customers warm on the coldest winter days.

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