Meeting Electrical Demand in Extreme Weather

Meeting Electrical Demand in Extreme Weather

January 19, 2015

Winter Storms Threaten Electrical Supply Stability

The 14 East Coast states account for about 28 percent of the U.S. national consumption of electricity. The winter of 2012-2013 saw major blackouts in the east coast. However, the winter of 2013-2014, even with more severe weather, the electrical grid has been able to support the increase in demand.

Despite recent advances in renewable resources to generate electricity, domestically we rely primarily on fossil fuels. Coal makes up most of this fuel mix while natural gas comes a close second. According to EPA statistics, the total US electricity generation is 11 billion kWh per day, 4.3 billion out of which is by coal, 3.1 by natural gas and the rest by a combination of nuclear, hydroelectric, and other renewable resources. The U.S. has 1400 coal fired electricity generation plants and about the same number of natural gas power plants.

Recently the US east coast was battered by arctic winds, drastically plummeting the temperatures to sub-zero levels. Most of these states experienced the coldest temperatures in a century, with chilling winds that caused extremely dangerous and life threatening cold spells. Hundreds of domestic and international flights were cancelled, and daily life routine was disrupted completely. Such extreme and nasty weather resulted in road blockages as well as accidents. This was unusual weather for the otherwise temperate states; with a consequent steep hike in the demand for electricity.

Power Outages Have Diminished

Weather is a major driving force and determinant of energy/electricity consumption pattern, particularly in the winter. While weather caused many power outages due to downed lines, the dramatic increase in demand did not result in blackouts as in previous years.

The previous winter, the east coast experienced the worst blackout of the decade. Thousands of people spent hours without electricity and heating as the demand on the national grid rose exponentially without giving producers a chance to compensate. Power outages were reported in Virginia, parts of West Virginia, Maryland and the metropolitan Washington, DC area, because of freezing rain, wet snow and sleet.

The 2013-2014 winter was significantly less impacted compared to the previous year. Power outages were reported in some states like Virginia and Maryland because the distribution network has been significantly damaged by the arctic conditions. Repair work is extremely difficult in these conditions resulting in delays in restoring electricity supply to affected areas. Nevertheless, due to improvements utility companies have made, the impacts were significantly reduced as compared to the previous year’s winter.

Sudden Demands Require Rapid Supply Response

To meet the sudden rise in demand, the power companies had to step up production rapidly. The data gathered from the power sector shows that large volumes of natural gas were withdrawn from underground storage facilities to be used for electricity production. This is the highest volume of natural gas withdrawn in a month since the beginning of this century, and the largest change in the inventory of gas reserves. The Energy Information Association (EIA) reports that the East made the largest withdrawals from its reserves (149 billion cubic feet). After last winter, the inventory showed that natural gas stores are 20.7 percent less than the previous year and 14.9 percent below the five-year average. Frigid temperatures last winter resulted in record highs in demand and consequently record highs in gas withdrawals for power generation.

As the focus shifts from coal to the use of relatively cleaner technologies, natural gas emerges as a leading contender in the energy sector. This is because the other technologies are still in their initial stages of development and have a limited availability. No other source of electricity generation comes even close to the potential and outreach that natural gas possesses at the moment. It also is vital in the regard that it is readily available and comparatively cheap.

Gas-powered electricity generation stations are easy to set up and safer to run than heavy coal-fired plants or costly and high maintenance nuclear power plants. It is also less affected by weather conditions than renewable sources like solar or wind energy, and hence, more dependable in bad weather conditions.

As well, electricity generation can be stepped up relatively easily in case of increased demand, as was the case during the recent cold onslaught in the East this last winter, where extreme weather conditions posed the risk of electricity and fuel shortages that could turn into a calamity.


Since the renewable energy sources are still fledgling, the natural gas industry can prove a valuable forerunner in domestic and industrial production of electricity. It is the need of the hour that the industry takes the necessary steps to increase production and distribution capacity, and fortify the existing network so that it is prepared in advance in case extreme weather strikes again.

Image Source: Crystal A. Murray