The Energy 202: Polar vortex tests gas and electric systems in Midwest, Mid-Atlantic

THE LIGHTBULB

People walking outside in Chicago despite a temperature around minus-20 degrees. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As millions of residents in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic hunker down amid historically bitter temperatures, the cold is testing the very energy systems meant to keep their lights on and homes warm during the brutal winter weather.

The polar vortex is poised to deliver a one-two punch to power systems across the eastern half of the United States. Not only are residents demanding more heat and electricity while staying indoors, the icy and windy weather is straining generating stations, power lines and other infrastructure that deliver that power.

Already, thousands of Americans in the Midwest have experienced power outages amid the polar vortex. Dozens in one Minnesota city lost heat in the middle of the night on Tuesday as the mercury plunged to minus-26 degrees Fahrenheit there. And on Thursday in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) asked most state residents to lower their thermostats to 65 degrees or less until Friday to conserve on gas.

Ahead of the historic lows this week, electric utilities and grid operators began taking precautions to brace for the deep freeze. 

Two of the nation’s largest regional grid operators, PJM Interconnection and Midcontinent Independent System Operator, put emergency cold-weather procedures into effect this week. Power generators in the PJM regional grid, which stretches from Illinois to New Jersey, were instructed to insulate pipes and top off backup fuel tanks ahead of the cold.

“This is a kind of call to action for any of those last-minute preparations,” said Michael Bryson, PJM’s vice president of operations.

Just as snowflakes are varied, winter weather can weaken power generation in a number of ways. Cold can stall coal, natural gas or nuclear power generation. Ice can grid wind turbines to a halt. Snow can incapacitate solar panels. 

For homes heated directly by natural gas, frigid temperatures can also strain the supply of heating fuel — as is the case this week in Minnesota.

The Minneapolis-based electric utility Xcel Energy has asked Minnesotans to turn their thermostats down to 63 degrees Fahrenheit through Thursday morning because of a “significant strain on our natural gas system due to extreme weather,” the company said in a statement.

About 150 residents around Princeton, Minn., lost natural gas service about 10:30 p.m. amid subzero temperatures Tuesday night, forcing some to rely on space heaters for warmth. Xcel said it expects to return to service by Thursday. In the meantime, it offered to put those customers up in hotels until heat is restored to their homes.

High winds and other wintry conditions can also disrupt the delivery of electricity, such as by bringing down power lines.

At one point on Wednesday morning, for example, 50,000 homes and businesses served by Commonwealth Edison, the biggest electric utility in Illinois, were without power, mostly in the towns and cities north and south of Chicago. Service was restored to most of those customers by the afternoon.

“When the temperature gets this unusually low,” Commonwealth Edison spokesman Paul Elsberg said, “we’re bound to see these types of outages.”

Outages also rolled through parts of Wisconsin and Iowa early that day, affecting about 7,000 customers, according to outage maps of various utility companies. Kenosha County, south of Milwaukee, was hit particularly hard after a power line snapped and sheared power poles in the small town of Somers, Wis., according to the electric and gas utility We Energies.

To keep workers warm, Commonwealth Edison dispatched two or even three crews at a time to allow repair workers to take breaks. We Energies also encouraged its repair staff to pause in warm vehicles.

While the cold is concentrated in the Great Lakes region, policymakers in Washington are feeling the chill. On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry huddled to discuss the polar vortex with top aides.

Received an update from @KarenEvansCESER on how @ENERGY is ready to respond to the polar vortex hitting the country from the Midwest to the East Coast. pic.twitter.com/d05XjfabSD

— Rick Perry (@SecretaryPerry) January 29, 2019

They included Karen Evans, assistant secretary of the newly formed Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response. The Trump administration established that office last year to coordinate its response to power outages from extreme weather events, as well as terrorist attacks. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress generally applauded the creation of the bureau.

Earlier in President Trump’s administration, however, the Energy Department also pitched a more controversial proposal to keep electricity flowing during cold snaps. The department said such polar vortices are reasons to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants. 

Perry said that only those two types of power generation could assure grid reliability because they, unlike gas and renewable energy generators, could keep a 90-day supply of fuel on site. But critics of the plan saw it as a ham-handed effort to prop up Trump’s political allies in the coal business.

The independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ended up agreeing with those naysayers. In a binding decision last year, all five of its commissioners, including four appointed by Trump, rejected the Trump administration’s plan.

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THERMOMETER

— The polar vortex is here: The bone-deep, relentless cold blasting across the Midwest has been blamed for at least six deaths across the region. Officials urged people to stay indoors, and the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan declared states of emergency and ordered state government offices to close. Some agencies in Illinois were also shuttered Wednesday. “From Minnesota to Michigan, the polar vortex brought with it a slew of school closures, mail service interruptions and airline flight cancellations,” The Post’s Katie Mettler, Amy B Wang, Angela Fritz and Alex Horton report. “In Rochester, Minn., where temperatures dropped to minus-27 degrees Wednesday morning, all municipal transit services were suspended after buses began experiencing mechanical difficulties.”

The coldest temperatures: The Arctic cold is expected to be record-breaking. “Wind chill estimates plummeted to minus-50 in the Dakotas and northern Minnesota on Wednesday. The Arctic air will loosen its grip on the Midwest by Thursday afternoon; temperatures might even approach zero degrees in Chicago and Milwaukee. By the weekend, daytime temperatures will be above freezing across most of the Midwest.”

If you live in the Washington region: A nearly 10-degree temperature drop within half an hour Wednesday afternoon prompted the National Weather Service to issue a temporary special “flash freeze” warning, The Post’s Dan Stillman and Jason Samenow report. “This day is best viewed from indoors, but if you are out, bundle up,” David Streit adds. “Hopefully this is the worst that winter throws at us. Friday’s snow chances look anemic. The good news is temperatures recover to normal levels by Saturday and don’t slow down, with a run at 60 degrees early next week.”

This is what minus-40 feels like: Minnesota-based Post reporter Christopher Ingraham writes in this great perspective on what minus-40 actually feels like. “Ten below is bitter cold,” he writes. “Twenty below is also bitter cold… By about 30 below the cold doesn’t feel like cold anymore — it’s just pure, unadulterated pain; a sharp, burning sensation. After a few moments, the burning gives way to a deep, dull ache that feels like it’s radiating from your bones. I’ve never been brave and/or dumb enough to test what comes after the ache, but my assumption is it’s deeply unpleasant and possibly irreversible.”

OIL CHECK

A mural close to the headquarters of the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA in Caracas, shown Wednesday. PDVSA is the parent company of Houston-based oil refiner Citgo. (Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

— Citgo’s profits propped up Venezuelan leaders (until now): Even amid disastrous economic policies, Citgo, the U.S.-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company, has managed to remain afloat. It has continued to supply the diluent needed to thin Venezuela’s crude oil for pipeline transport, and has provided the revenue for president Nicolás Maduro to maintain his support, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. Until now. “Citgo, which has oil refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Illinois, can no longer straddle the gap between its identity as an American operation and its Venezuelan owners,” he writes. “President Trump has put it squarely in the center of an economic tug of war over the future of Venezuela … Because of financial sanctions Trump imposed in August 2017, Citgo’s payments to PDVSA have already been restricted. That has prevented PDVSA from squeezing money out of Citgo. As a result, Citgo has been paying down debt and working on deferred maintenance, and yet it has still accumulated $3 billion to $4 billion, according to Pedro Burelli, a consultant and onetime director of the Venezuelan national oil company.”

Pacific Gas & Electric vehicles parked at a service center in Oakland, Calif.  (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: Just one day after the California power giant filed for bankruptcy protection amid potential liabilities for deadly fires in California, a federal judge in San Francisco said the utility has a “clear-cut pattern” of starting wildfires, Bloomberg News reports. “To my mind, there’s a very clear-cut pattern here that PG&E is starting these fires,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said. “More money could have been spent. It’s not enough to just come in here and say, ‘judge we’re trying to mitigate it.’ ” The judge also called for “strong medicine” ahead of the year’s wildfire season “so we don’t have a repeat of the last two years … It has to be in place. It can’t be that we’re still talking about it.”

Few friends left in California capital: The state’s leaders have mostly been mum on PG&E’s move to declare bankruptcy, with no proposal for a financial bailout coming from new Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) or from state lawmakers, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Nobody in the building is willing to offer PG&E a bailout,” a longtime PG&E critic, state Sen. Jerry Hill (D), told the Journal. “A company that was once one of the most influential in Sacramento and regularly got its way on legislation and regulation now has few defenders left,” per the report. “The reason, Sacramento veterans say, is that years of bad news related to deadly fires and other disasters have made the company unpopular among the public.”

All that is happening while the company’s lobbying spending has skyrocketed. “In the first nine months of 2018, the company spent $8.35 million to lobby California legislators on a variety of bills,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports. “The number for the entire year is sure to be far higher … By contrast, from 2007 to 2017, the company spent an average of $1.37 million annually on general lobbying costs.”

A Tesla emblem on the back end of a Model S in the Tesla showroom in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric automaker saw a lower-than-expected profit for the last quarter of 2018 and posted a $1 billion loss for the year, The Post’s Drew Harwell reports, fueling concerns about whether it can sustain amid layoffs and massive debts. Although the $139 million profit for the quarter signaled progress by Tesla, “analysts had expected the company to record about $182 million in profits for the quarter, and the miss appeared to reinvigorate investor concerns over the Silicon Valley automaker’s ability to reach new markets and survive in an increasingly competitive industry.”

POWER PLAYS

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

— “Green New Deal” legislation may be coming soon: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are reportedly set to reveal as soon as next week legislation for a “Green New Deal,” Axios reports. But a spokesman for Markey told Axios the text of the bill has not yet been finalized. While legislation is expected soon, the “Green New Deal” has already “elbowed its way into Democratic dialogue — and, by extension, into a prominent place in 2020 campaign rhetoric,” The Post’s Chelsea Janes reports. “It is a way for Democrats angered at the Trump administration’s dismissal of environmental science to demonstrate their desire to attack climate change, with the explicit details left until later.

President Trump, with acting interior secretary David Bernhardt, left, speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

— A dearth of Senate-confirmed leaders at the Interior Department: The Interior Department is operating without half a dozen key Senate-confirmed leaders, and acting secretary David Bernhardt this week amended a secretarial order that will keep it that way, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. Now, the appointees leading major divisions of the department will be able to keep serving until the end of May. “The original order, which then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed on Nov. 13, stipulated that eight officials could head major sections of the department even though they had not been confirmed,” she writes.

— Meanwhile: The White House is considering former Wyoming congresswoman Cynthia Lummis to replace Zinke as Interior Secretary. Conservative Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus have expressed support for Lummis, a former cattle rancher, Bloomberg News reports, “who was an unabashed champion of oil, gas and coal development during her four terms in the House of Representatives.” “Lummis’s policy priorities align with Trump’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda,” per the report. “And her background as a Westerner — one fond of telling colleagues to ‘cowboy up’ — may give her a unique perspective into the oft-contentious land management issues that are at the heart of the Interior secretary job.”

— Democratic senator and eight AGs back climate suit against Chevron: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and a group of eight Democratic state attorneys general filed separate briefs in support of a lawsuit in California charging Chevron with knowingly contributing to climate change. The states AGs argue they have a “concrete interest” in the case “[i]n light of the costly impacts that climate change is already having within our borders, and because the harmful effects of climate change are unlikely to stop in the near future.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) (Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP)

— New Mexico moves to limit methane emissions: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) directed state officials in an executive order to develop rules to reduce methane emission “as soon as practicable” and also work toward reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. The order calls on a task force to come up with a plan to reduce emissions by 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, Reuters reports. The move comes as the Trump administration seeks to rewrite methane emissions rules at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department. Lujan Grisham also announced New Mexico joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, along with a group of other governors pledging to uphold standards set by the Paris climate deal regardless of moves made by the Trump administration to withdraw from the accord.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy hosts an event on Prospects for Climate Solutions on Feb. 6.
  • Politico hosts an event on clean energy innovations on Feb. 6. 

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Amid the cold, the trains are on fire (on purpose): Chicago’s commuter rail crews light the rails on fire, usually using rope soaked in kerosene, in order to prevent damage in the cold, the Chicago Tribune reports.  

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