electric grid strain

A nasty winter storm ripped through the northeast December 14, causing a surge in power demand that severely challenged grid reliability for the region.

The surge caused electricity demand to peak at 20,182 megawatts (MW), according to the system operator’s reports. While the total available capacity and reserve requirement were enough to effectively cover electric demands, the storm certainly appeared to test the system operator’s abilities. Utilities providing power to businesses come under significant strain during grid events — but that doesn’t have to mean losing power during peak hours. Demand response programs can help utilities provide a reliable source of electricity to their customers, and protect their region’s  power supply.

In regards to the grid event Dec. 14, Forbes contributor William Pentland states, “The actual load was significantly above the forecast load [on the 14th] for several hours and filling that gap on the fly pushed the system near the edge of its operating capabilities.”

Around 5 p.m., New England’s electric demand jumped quickly, rising more than 20 megawatts per minute for over an hour. As a result, emergency plans were implemented for only the third time this year. In addition, energy prices began to soar rapidly to offset the demand. Whereas the average price in 2012 for one megawatt-hour of electricity in New England’s real-time power market was $36, on Dec. 14 it rose to over $1,000 per megawatt-hour during peak demand.

Officials were asked earlier in December about New England’s grid reliability by the New Haven Register. The system operator was confident there are enough resources needed to meet demand, but also warned how certain factors related to producing power could create problems during the harshest days. ISO-NE spokeswoman Lacey Ryan explains:

“More than half of the region’s electricity is produced by power plants that run on natural gas. At the same time, some power plant operators procure fuel using a ‘just-in-time’ delivery system that taps into the release of unneeded capacity from the pipelines used by local gas distribution companies. Use of that kind of delivery system becomes problematic during periods of really cold weather in which the demand for both electricity and natural gas for heating homes increases.”

As a result, Ryan told the newspaper that ISO-NE is taking steps before the end of the winter season to procure almost two million megawatt-hours of energy through oil-fired generation facilities, which are the most reliable at times of grid strain. The additional capacity will certainly help contend against similar circumstances in the future, which is a great relief for the region.

The threat of a blackout was fairly minimal due to the operating reserve requirement, but to have only 274 megawatts of reserve capacity on hand at any given time is a cause for concern. Fortunately, energy efficiency measures like demand response can be implemented when system operators need assistance to eliminate the threat of blackouts, brownouts, and voltage fluctuations.

Photo Credit: New England Grid Strain/shutterstock