Reeling from winter, utilities scramble to prepare for cooling season
Power plants shut down and electricity prices went haywire in January when brutally cold weather sent half of America running to the thermostat.
Utility executives, regulators and operators disagree over just how close the power grid got to catastrophe during the polar vortex. They pledged that consumers won't feel such a price pinch next winter and expect to improve the system before the next deep freeze.
But what about summer? Elected leaders and others want to know if a grid strained by power plant closures and unprecedented winter demand can handle a prolonged heat wave when demand soars even higher.
“That's a good question. There's certain conditions we cannot control and that includes the weather,” Gov. Tom Corbett said recently after speaking at a coal industry conference about the danger of ditching coal as a source of electricity generation.
Industry executives say the winter woes won't repeat this summer.
Operators of the PJM Interconnection grid that transmits power in Pennsylvania and 12 surrounding states acknowledge they face potential problems over the next few years.
“There are still plenty of challenges, including the large uncertainty in load forecasts and the largest fuel switch in history,” Terry Boston, CEO of Valley Forge-based PJM, said this month during the grid operator's annual meeting in Maryland.
It's doubtful those problems will surface this year, though, according to PJM, utility officials and experts.
‘Pretty good shape'
“I think we're in pretty good shape for this summer in terms of planned peak conditions and in terms of resources available. The grid itself is in good shape,” said Gregory Reed, director of the Electric Power Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh and associate director of Pitt's Center for Energy. Utilities “have done a lot of work in the last few years reinforcing the high-voltage network ... to improve the capacity margin and enhance the operations.”
PJM increased its projected peak demand above last summer and said it learned lessons from bouts of extreme weather. Cold weather stresses the grid and power markets in ways that usually don't happen in the summer. Utilities and electricity generators have spent the past several months preparing equipment and lines for when they're needed most.
“We try to do a lot of the work in advance of June 1. Hitting that summer cooling season is a big milestone for us,” said Todd Meyers, a spokesman for Greensburg-based West Penn Power, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, which will spend $25 million this year just on clearing vegetation that could bring down power lines.
The utility operator, which supplies electricity to about 720,000 customers in 24 counties, stepped up its tree-trimming and cut in half tree-related outages over the past several years, Meyers said. It increased inspections of transmission lines, utility poles and substations, using infrared cameras in some cases to find weaknesses before they become a problem in the summer heat.
Some of the company's big system improvements support the grid itself. A $20 million project in Armstrong County is aimed at bringing in power and improving a substation where the company shut down a power plant. A $2.1 million transmission project in Greene County will improve service to coal mines that supply fuel for power generators. Notable distribution improvements include a new line in Washington County — home to much of the gas drilling in the Marcellus shale — and projects feeding the growing amount of gas processing equipment in West Virginia.
Shift toward gas
The grid and utilities will look more to natural gas to generate electricity as stricter environmental rules and economic factors prompt more closings of coal-fired plants.
PJM said it is planning for coal plant closures that will remove a combined 26,000 megawatts of capacity from its grid by the end of 2015. Analyst SNL Financial predicts PJM will lose another 3,000 megawatts from non-coal-related closures, such as aging gas plants. Last week, PJM predicted daily demand peaks of about 100,000 megawatts. One megawatt powers about 800 homes.
“The longer-term concerns are, what are the replacement options, and how do we do this to meet carbon emissions and other issues,” Pitt's Reed said.
Generation projects to tap the plentiful gas from the Marcellus — such as a plant Panda Power Funds said this month it would build in Bradford County — won't come online for several years. Companies are scrambling to build pipelines to connect gas fields to power plants.
The state Public Utility Commission in a review of electricity price spikes during the winter cited those connectivity issues. “During events like that, I'm reminded of the famous saying, ‘There's water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,' ” Commissioner Pam Witmer said.
Utilities were looking for gas to heat homes and generate electricity at a time when record-low temperatures slowed deliveries from some pipelines. As a result, some generators failed to start, further draining the supply of power. And gas prices skyrocketed.
PJM spokeswoman Paula DuPont-Kidd said the grid was “still several steps away” from blackouts at the height of demand and such supply problems are unlikely in the summer. But prices could remain volatile.
“We're looking at how we can better align our markets, the natural gas and electric supply market,” she said.
The Department of Energy expects electricity prices to increase an average of 4 percent nationwide this year and more in later years as the markets balance.
Meanwhile, coal plants generate 40 percent of electricity nationwide and will remain a backbone of the grid this summer.
Generators such as FirstEnergy have spent the past several weeks stacking supplies, checking pumps and finishing special training at facilities such as the coal-fired Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport.
“We call it ‘just-in-time' training so they're ready for those conditions,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Young.
David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.