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Arctic blast flashes warning signal for regional grid stability and reliance on intermittent power sources

You don’t need me to tell you it was extremely cold the last few weeks. But what you may not know is how close the region came to rolling blackouts due to the stresses on the power grid from the perfect storm of high demand as families tried to stay warm and the drop of available power from intermittent sources like wind. Thankfully clean renewable hydropower and other baseload sources like natural gas and nuclear kept us from all looking like Jack Torrance from The Shining.

Here are some of the concerning details in Washington and Montana over the last few weeks during the extreme cold.


“As temperatures plummeted across Washington state on January 13, PSE sent a notice to customers asking them to reduce their use of electricity and natural gas. The notice said, ‘Due to the extreme cold temperatures facing our area, regional utilities are experiencing higher energy use than forecasted, and we need to reduce strain on the grid.'

As demand from customers across the Northwest increased (the red line on the chart), wind-generated electricity, listed as ‘VER’ on the chart, fell significantly. Data from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) shows that demand increased significantly during Friday and peaked on Saturday. Hydro power made up the difference, increasing from about 6,800 megawatt hours (MWh) at its peak on Thursday to over 10,300 MWh on Saturday night – an increase of 52 percent.

Between 9 am and 9 pm on Saturday, wind-generated electricity fell from 876 MWh to 129 MWh. Just two days earlier, wind turbines were creating more than 2,500 MWh across the BPA system. As the cold front moved in on late Thursday along with the cold temperatures, wind power disappeared.”


“The Bonneville Power Administration asked Energy Northwest to use ‘no touch’ protocols for its nuclear power reactor starting Wednesday, Jan. 10, as a precaution against any reduction of power production . . .

Grant PUD on Monday afternoon asked its customers to reduce electricity use for the next 36 hours to avoid the potential for local and regional outages until temperatures warm. ‘Frigid temperatures throughout Grant County and the Pacific Northwest this past week have pushed energy use to record levels, strained many regional electric grids, and put a heavy draw on our region’s capacity to generate electricity,’ it told customers Monday.”

A similar warning occurred in Montana during the extreme cold weather:

“The record-breaking cold snap Montana saw this month brought days of below-zero temperatures across the state — and with them what major Montana utility NorthWestern Energy said was record-high electric demand from its customers.

The arctic blast, and how the state’s energy system responded, triggered a wave of analysis from folks engaged in Montana’s running debate over renewable energy, coal generation and the future of the state’s electric grid . . .

NorthWestern pointed in a Jan. 17 press release to a later, colder stretch of the cold snap, stressing that it had relied heavily on Colstrip, natural gas plants and hydroelectric dam generation to keep electricity flowing to Montana customers. ‘Wind and solar generation could not produce much, if any, power during the extreme cold,’ wrote NorthWestern spokesperson Jo Dee Black.

Meanwhile, along with efforts by some in Washington state to remove hydropower-producing dams, the state House this week passed a bill to essentially ban the use of natural gas in the state:

“The bill would ban any gas company that serves more than 500,000 customers — specifically, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) — from connecting new natural gas lines to new residential or commercial buildings — with limited exemptions for certain manufacturing, medical care, correctional, and military facilities. PSE would also no longer be required to provide natural gas service to existing customers, which state law currently mandates.

The bill says the ban applies to any new construction after June 30th, 2023. If approved, it would take effect immediately, due to an emergency clause included in the measure.”

This proposal has drawn strong concern from builders in Washington:

“Not even two weeks have passed since thousands of Washington families fought bitter cold winter weather causing PSE to ask them to curb their energy use to reduce strain on the grid. Removing natural gas as a source of heating homes and water will cause our electrical grid to fail,” Greg Lane, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), said.

As for efforts to remove hydropower-producing dams in our region, a congressional hearing will be held on January 30 by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Chairs of that committee said in a press release:  

“The Columbia River System and the Lower Snake River Dams are the beating heart of the Pacific Northwest, yet that hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from apparently colluding with special interest groups to lay the groundwork to remove them. We are deeply disturbed by the blatant disregard for the enormous hydropower, irrigation, and navigation benefits these dams provide, as well as a willingness to ignore the voices of those who depend on the dams the most. It’s past time for full transparency from the Biden administration.”

Diversification efforts of the power grid are a worthy goal if they don’t come at the expense of reliable baseload power. The same grid reliability problems that occur with intermittent power sources during periods of extreme cold are also present during extreme heat when families are trying to stay cool.

When families try to stay warm during an arctic blast or try to stay cool during extreme heat, we need to make sure the power is reliably and economically available for them.

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