Local power networks were on the verge of collapse due to the outdated energy infrastructure and dependency on fossil fuels in the United States.
Rebecca Leber is a senior correspondent for Vox who covers climate change. Previously, she covered the environment for Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca is also a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ board of directors.
Over the Christmas holiday weekend, two-thirds of the US population experienced snowstorms, high winds, or severe winter weather, resulting in at least 52 deaths and straining the energy grid to the verge of failure. In many situations, this was the case. On Christmas, an estimated 1.7 million companies and residences were without power.
The coldest Christmas in recent memory resulted in an expected increase in heating demand as temperatures fell. For instance, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which delivers electricity to 10 million people, reported that demand was approximately 35 percent more than on an average January day.
In some jurisdictions, utilities and grid operators narrowly dodged a worse catastrophe by requesting that customers conserve energy or prepare for rolling blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily shuts down electrical power to avoid the entire system shutting down). Throughout the weekend, some of the larger operators, including Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy, utilised rolling blackouts. Others, such as National Grid, experienced interruptions and requested that certain consumers cut their gas consumption. Texas also narrowly escaped the emergency. Friday, the US Department of Energy granted the state permission to disregard environmental emission rules in order to maintain power.
A major transmission business that authorities believed would be well-prepared for the winter storm was caught off guard: PJM Interconnection, which serves 65 million people across 13 eastern states, experienced three times the projected number of power plant outages.
Officials may have been able to meet the increased demand if another predictable occurrence had not swamped the system. Due to the harsh temperatures, coal and gas facilities and pipelines froze, rendering them inoperable and preventing them from supplying energy to regions that rely mostly on gas.
The Christmas incidents demonstrate how utilities and regulators continue to overestimate the reliability of fossil fuels during a winter storm.
It wasn’t that the country lacked sufficient gasoline to meet the increased demand. There was an abundance of gasoline, but the infrastructure proved susceptible to the severe weather. There were enough frozen or broken wells and pipes to bring the grid to its breaking point.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, severe winds and freezing temperatures impacted equipment at TVA’s largest coal plant and some of its natural gas-powered plants. “At one point on Friday, TVA lost more than 6,000 megawatts of power generation, or roughly 20% of its load,” a news source reported. “Both units at TVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant were offline, and other gas generating units also experienced issues,” the news source added.
It is too early to determine the precise cause of power outages in every state, but some utilities failed to fulfil demand. As of Monday, preliminary data from BloombergNEF indicates that the county’s total heating and power-generation fuels were approximately 10 percent below typical.
The rolling blackouts and energy conservation alerts were caused by the only variable that large utility companies could still control: consumer demand. For the duration of the storms, utilities advised millions of consumers to reduce their energy consumption by delaying laundry and dishwashing use and lowering their thermostats.
Demand response is a comprehensive technique in which utilities attempt to control power use by encouraging consumers to alter their energy consumption during peak hours. However, even these consumer notifications to cut energy consumption are imperfect blunt instruments. As my colleague Umair Irfan explained, rolling blackouts result in power reduction “across the board without regard for who is most vulnerable, what parts of the power grid are closest to the brink, or where the most effective cuts can be made.”
A focus on slashing energy demand has worked before for specific events — like when California and Texas experienced heat waves earlier this year. But there are better ways the US can prepare for peak demand in a winter storm or a heat wave. Part of the answer is better demand response, but that requires longer-term infrastructure investments in energy efficiency and smart meters.
This latest storm shows, yet again, that fossil fuels aren’t especially reliable in extreme weather. Yet so much of energy politics focuses purely on supply — the mining and extraction, and how much oil, gas, and coal is in reserve. It’s often taken for granted that this supply will always be accessible. In the meantime, we’ve failed to build more important infrastructure throughout our energy system; more energy storage, distributed power generation, interconnections across the major power grids, redundancy, and demand response are all needed. Simply adding more gas or coal to the grid won’t prevent blackouts from happening again in the future.