Cold weather during the winter consistently triggers power delivery disruptions; recent events include the outages from Maine to Seattle in December 2022 and Texas in February 2021. Unfortunately, these cold weather power outages are also coming at the worst time. A large portion of the population relies on power for heat, so any cold weather power outage can cause major discomfort and even risk to life.
Yet, despite their regularity, these power outages are also largely preventable as they mostly come down to grid and equipment issues. Once the causes are identified and addressed, the regularity and severity of threats to winter power can be reduced, and people can buckle down and see the cold weather through with relative energy security.
Causes of Cold Weather Power Outages
With cold weather, it is not one specific element that disrupts the power supply but rather a combination of factors that create a perfect storm of pressure on the power system, including:
Underlying Grid Infrastructure
The age of the US’ national infrastructure has been widely recognized as a prominent factor in exacerbating the natural disasters faced by the country. The power grid is no different, and much of the equipment used in generation and transmission is now operating far below its operational capacity at installation. Extreme cold, heat, or high humidity cause grid devices to operate differently (faster, slower, or not as intended), increasing the potential for faults and circuit overloads.
The extremes of winter temperatures and conditions put excessive pressure on grid infrastructure. Lines become stiffer in extreme cold, while ice can follow tree roots to build up around underground lines. There’s also the issue of weight on lines, with ½” of ice capable of adding 500 pounds of extra weight. Per National Geographic, around 40% of power outages were caused by trees. In winter, this can be from high winds uprooting them, heavy snow causing branches to fall onto lines, or even the tree itself splitting from the cold. Another 20% was from animals who will search for any possible shelter in very cold conditions, including the relative warmth of transformer boxes or control panels.
These cold weather power outages also tend to last longer during the winter because icy roads and blizzards make it more difficult for recovery teams to access and fix problems.
Energy demand spikes during extreme weather conditions, either to cool down or heat up homes. Nearly 40% of Americans rely on electricity for their heating, meaning there is a large increase in load during extreme cold. This peak demand, in return, puts greater pressure on the equipment transmitting energy. Unfortunately, reducing the generation and transmission of energy during this time isn’t feasible, as it would put people in danger.
Extreme cold severely impacts power plants, with equipment such as hydraulic lines, turbines, and electromechanical support equipment being asked to operate at the edge or beyond their safe temperature zones. Frozen well water is also a significant factor in causing the shutdown of oil and gas production. During Texas’ severe storm in 2021, 38 gas processing and power plants were forced to shut down, reduce production, or burn off gas. As a result, the state saw a huge drop (45%) in gas production over the spell.
The combination of these four major factors working to multiply each other’s effects on the grid is the major reason for cold weather power outages. Fortunately, knowing what leads to these cold weather power outages means it’s possible to plan for and prevent these factors from having such a big impact.
Modernizing the Grid to Prevent Cold Weather Power Outages
While many of the environmental factors that play a role in cold weather power outages are beyond our immediate control, we can create a grid that is resilient enough to significantly reduce disruption. This much-needed modernizing of the grid will involve a few steps:
1. Needs Assessment – On a national scale, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving the resilience of our energy grids against cold weather power outages. However, on state, county, and individual operator levels, it is feasible to assess and draw up a plan for retrofitting existing systems and ensuring all newly developed infrastructure is built to certain specifications that can withstand the worst effects of winter storms.
2. Modernizing and Replacing Equipment - The stress placed on energy creation and transmission systems by cold weather can be alleviated by ensuring that the components used operate at their expected capacity. Old and damaged equipment is much more likely to fail than new, factory-tested pieces. Some of the retrofits and updating of grid equipment include:
Replacing obsolete circuit breakers
Installing SCADA or remote access controls
Installing or updating touchscreens or interfaces
Replacing analog malfunction meters with solid-state metering
Upgrading obsolete individual protection relays with the latest multifunction relays
Updating or replacing old PLCs
Retrofitting existing cabinets
Reconditioning enclosures and power modules, configuring them for remote control
3. Remote Control - A major element in modernizing grid infrastructure to reduce cold weather power outages is improving the remote identification and control capacities of generation and transmission stations. With advances in IoT sensors and other remotely operated equipment, teams can monitor the situation across an entire grid. This allows them to perform more effective predictive maintenance and identify urgent needs during cold weather spells.
Modernize Your Grids with Enercon Engineering
Cold weather power outages are caused by a combination of factors putting stress on the energy grid. These include the age and state of the grid infrastructure, environmental factors, energy demand, and reduced output, which all work together multiplicatively to increase the potential for grid failure. However, the possibility of cold weather power outages can be reduced through effective preparation and needs assessment followed by upgrading and retrofitting the grid and deploying remote monitoring and control.
Enercon has nearly five decades of experience working across the globe on modernizing power grids to improve their resilience. We provide a field service with specialist teams that can assess needs, and we can then source and create all the components required to reduce the prospect of cold weather power outages. To learn more about our retrofitting and modernizing of power grids, read more here or talk to our team.