More Harsh Winters Could Spell Disaster For The Electrical Grid

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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If you thought last winter was bad, get ready for a potentially worse winter in parts of the country this year. But another record-setting winter could mean more than higher heating bills and snow fights.

Harsh winter weather combined with coal-fired power plant closings could spell trouble for many households across the country who will desperately need to keep the lights and heat on this winter.

Joe Bastardi, chief meteorologist at WeatherBELL Analytics, told the Wall Street Journal Live that current weather patterns are “flowing along right now into the type of El Niño situation that is notorious for giving the United States cold, snowy winters, especially in the southern and eastern part of the United States, relative to the averages.”

Temperatures last winter set new record lows for huge swaths of the U.S. The stretch from December 2013 to February 2014 was the “34th coldest such period for the contiguous 48 states as a whole since modern records began in 1895,” reports the Weather Channel.

But the harsh winter did more than just chill the air, it sent demand for heat and power surging and brought the electrical grid to near its breaking point. Natural gas power plants lacked the supplies and infrastructure to keep the lights on and green energy was unable to generate power in fierce winter weather.

Bastardi noted that another harsh winter “would be significant because we were within one power plant last year of having the grid overload.”

“This year, if you get the kind of winter that we had in 2009-2010 or 2002-2003 with the nation’s grid on the ropes the way it is and some of these regulations that I hear about coming down that are supposed to close plants on January 1st… this could be a very, very big economic impact on the winter,” Bastardi continued. “And we’re very concerned about that.”

The only source of power able to meet the massive surge in electricity demand amid power supply struggles was coal. Last winter, coal provided 92 percent of the incremental electricity versus the same time the previous winter, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Utilities in New England and the Midwest had trouble getting enough natural gas and other heating oils to customers, meaning the regions would have suffered from brownouts or even blackouts if coal power did not come online to pick up the slack.

But coal power may not be there to rescue the electrical grid next winter if temperatures drop and fierce snowstorms roll through the country again. EPA regulations are projected to force contribute to the shuttering of up to 60 gigawatts of coal power — amounting to hundreds of coal-fired generators across the country.

The EPA’s Utility MACT rule a major contributor to coal plant closings. This rule alone is projected to cost about $10 billion per year and will go into effect in April 2015. Federal energy regulators have been worried the accelerated pace this rule forces coal plants to shut down could endanger the grid.

“We’re closing an enormous amount of coal generation, through a variety of rules, and a good number of those plants are set to retire next April,” Philip Moeller, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told Platts Energy Week. “But most people would say about 90% of that capacity was running and used and necessary during the polar vortex events.”

“So the question is: Are we going to have mild weather for the next 2-3 years? If so, we can probably get through it,” Moeller said. “But if we have more extreme weather events, like we had this winter, and that power is no longer available, we could be in a real situation that’s not good for consumers.”

Moeller added that blackouts were a “possibility” for parts of the country where large amounts of coal retirements are taking place or that rely too heavily on natural gas for electricity generation — like New England.

It’s not just federal energy grid regulators who are worried. State energy commissioners and regional energy officials are worried that coal plant closings will make it hard to keep the lights on in harsh weather.

In the past two years, officials with the the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) ordered “at least seven coal and gas-fired power plants to keep running as a last resort plan to keep the lights on in case of an emergency,” reports Midwest Energy news.

Regional grid operators, like MISO which operates in the Midwest, have the power to order power plants to stay online even though they may ;no longer be economically viable. These plants are called “System Support Resources” (SSR) and are expected to become more prevalent as EPa rules force coal plants to shutter.

“SSR designation is very much a last resort – but it is something we’re seeing much more of given MATS and other environmental regulation and other industry trends like gas prices,” MISO spokesman Andy Schonert told Midwest Energy News in June. “That has resulted in us seeing more of these (SSRs) and I don’t get the impression these will be going away any time soon.”

Schonert added that SSRs “provide a backstop mechanism for the orderly exiting of such generation without disrupting grid reliability.”

Republican lawmakers have also attacked EPA rules for imperiling the electric grid.

“The Polar Vortex caused 50,000 megawatts of power plant outages,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “For one key system, 89 percent of the coal capacity that is slated for retirement next year because of an EPA rule was called upon to meet rising demand. Think about that. We had a tough winter and coal facilities were able to step up.”

“The question we should be asking is, what happens when that capacity is gone? Hoping for a mild winter isn’t a viable strategy. We can’t have a-hope-and-a-prayer policy,” she added.

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