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Frigid weather strains fuel supplies at U.S. utilities
Warning issued on natural gas, electricity supply constraints
Question of the Day
Utilities in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast came uncomfortably close Tuesday to running out of fuel as the worst Arctic cold blast in two decades drove demand for electricity and home heating to record highs.
The system is expected to be tested again Tuesday night and early Wednesday as temperatures dip close to zero overnight in much of the nation.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration issued an alert Tuesday, warning of electricity and natural gas supply constraints and soaring fuel prices in the Northeast, while PJM Interconnection, the grid network that funnels electricity to houses and businesses in the Mid-Atlantic region, called on consumers to conserve electricity and said the extreme cold had caused some power generating plants to shut down unexpectedly.
The crunch arose because natural gas, the main home heating fuel in the U.S., is increasingly being used to run power plants as well. Plentiful and cheap supplies of natural gas made available by hydraulic fracturing in recent years have encouraged utilities to retire hundreds of nuclear and coal-fired power plants and replace them with units run with natural gas. Environmental regulations looming over the industry also pose an incentive to switch from coal to the less-polluting natural gas.
The increased demand for natural gas by utilities has not been a problem in the past because the high season for electricity usually occurs in the summer, when gas supplies are plentiful and consumer demand for power to run air conditioners is at its peak. The greatest need for natural gas occurs in winter, for home heating.
But the extreme cold that has saturated the country this week has turned all that on its head and created a first-ever collision pitting consumers and their need for home heating fuel against utilities and their need to produce power. As electricity is also used to heat homes in about 30 percent of U.S. households, the crunch poses serious dangers for millions of consumers if it leads to power outages during the deadly cold spell.
PJM conveyed the urgency of the matter in an announcement calling on customers to save power.
“The extreme cold is driving power use to record levels for the winter and has also caused some generating plants to shut down unexpectedly,” it said. PJM said electricity demand broke the previous winter record Tuesday morning and was poised to go even higher Tuesday night.
“So far, power needs have been met, however in anticipation of high use at peak time later today, we are requesting help from the public to reduce power use,” it said.
PJM said there’s a danger that extraordinary demand for natural gas to heat homes could force the curtailment of gas supplies to some power plants. PJM said it was seeking assurances from its suppliers that natural gas will be available to fuel power plants in the Mid-Atlantic during the cold snap.
The U.S. energy agency chimed in later in the day, warning that the situation was particularly critical in New York City, Boston and the rest of the Northeast, where fuel supplies were being pushed to their limits.
“All pipelines from the west and south into New England remain constrained today. Flows on the marginal pipeline into New York City (Texas Eastern — Tetco) are constrained at key points,” it said.
Fortunately, the shortfall was being met by a 75 percent surge in supplies of gas coming out of Canada into New England, it said, and by some power plants switching from gas to oil in the region.
The tight constraints on fuel supplies sent prices for gas soaring in New York City from about $13 per million British thermal units over the weekend to nearly $50 on Monday. Wholesale electricity prices also soared from about $139 per megawatt hour to $225 on Monday in New York.
Like the rest of the Northeast, Washington temperatures were far below seasonal norms Tuesday, with a high of around 20 degrees Fahrenheit and lows heading back toward zero overnight.
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