Winter storms put the US power grid to the test. It failed.

“Two-thirds of the US population faced snowstorms, high winds, or frigid winter weather over the Christmas holiday weekend, leading to at least 52 deaths and pushing the electricity grid to the brink of failure. And in many instances, it did. At its peak on Christmas, an estimated 1.7 million businesses and homes faced power outages.

It was the coldest Christmas in recent memory, and that meant a predictable surge in heating demand as temperatures dropped. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides power for 10 million people, for instance, said demand was running nearly 35 percent higher than on a typical winter day.

In many states, utilities and grid operators only narrowly averted greater disaster by asking customers to conserve their energy or prepare for rolling blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily shuts down electrical power to avoid the entire system shutting down). Some of the largest operators, including Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy, used rolling blackouts throughout the weekend. Others, like National Grid, experienced some outages and asked some consumers to reduce gas usage. Texas also barely got through the emergency. On Friday, the US Department of Energy permitted the state to ignore environmental emissions standards to keep the power on.

One major transmission company that regulators thought would be well-prepared for the winter storm was caught off-guard: PJM Interconnection, which serves 65 million people in 13 eastern states, faced triple the power plant outages than it expected.

Officials probably could have met the higher demand if not for another predictable event that overwhelmed the system. Because of the extreme conditions, coal and gas plants and pipelines froze up too, taking them out of commission to deliver energy in areas that run mostly on gas.

The events over Christmas show how utilities and regulators continue to overestimate the reliability of fossil fuels to deliver power in a winter storm.”

“It wasn’t that the country didn’t have enoughgas to go around to meet the high demand. There was plenty of gas, but the infrastructure proved vulnerable to the extreme weather. Enough wells and pipes were frozen or broken to bring the grid to its brink.”

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