Power Grid Taxed To Its Limit Due To Extreme Winter Weather Across America

Tara Dodrill

The power grid is being overly taxed by the most recent arctic blast and winter snowstorm to hit the United States. Arctic air reportedly pushed power usage to a new winter record on Friday, according to the manager of the power grid.

The United States power grid has more blackouts than any other country in the developed world, according to new data that spotlights the country's aging and unreliable electric system. The data by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) shows that Americans face more power grid failures lasting at least an hour longer than residents of other developed nations. And it's getting worse.

Going back three decades, the United States grid loses power 285 percent more often than it did in 1984, when record keeping began. The power outages cost businesses in the United States as much as $150 billion per year, according to the Department of Energy.

PJM Interconnection reported a winter record preliminary peak demand of 143,800 megawatts on the morning of February 20.

"We see power use the highest in summer," PJM spokeswoman Paula DuPont-Kidd said. "And so usually when we hit a record in the summer, at this point, we're talking over 150,000" megawatts.

The power grid managed by PJM covers all or portions of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Most of that coverage area has experienced unseasonably cold temperatures and massive snowfall this winter.

"That's what makes it unusual from an operating perspective. Usually one area of the system is much colder and requiring more electricity than other areas," DuPont-Kidd added.

The power grid has morphed in size tenfold during the past 50 years. While solar flares, cyber attacks, and an EMP are perhaps the most extensive and frightening threats to the electrical system, the fragile infrastructure could just as easily fail in large portions due to weather-related events. The power grid has been deemed a "ticking time bomb" by some weather experts and scientific researchers. If the power grid fails, civil unrest, lack of food, clean water, and a multitude of fires and deaths would likely occur.

Weather-related events were the primary cause of power outages from 2007 to 2012, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card. Power grid reliability issues are emerging as the greatest threat to the electrical system. The ASCE grade card also notes that retiring and rotating in "new energy sources" is a "complex" process.

Freezing temperatures across the United States during the winter of 2013-14 and 2014-15 placed an extraordinary burden on the power grid – and some places have served as a reminder of its vulnerabilities. It became so cold that cargo ships are getting caught in a frozen Detroit River, forcing them to rely on icebreakers. In the South, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) issued an Energy Emergency Alert 2 last winter, noting that the state's main power grid barely avoided overwhelming outages. The level two alert is the final step in the process before rotating power outages are implemented.

The D+ grade meant that the grid was in "poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life." The report also maintained that a "large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration" with a "strong risk of failure."

[Image courtesy of National Geographic]