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Winter storms put strain on the US power grid. It has failed.

Two-thirds of the US population experienced snowstorms, high winds or freezing winter weather over the Christmas holiday weekend, bringing at least 52 dead and pushing the power grid to the brink of failure. And in many cases he did. At its peak at Christmas, an estimate 1.7 million businesses and homes experienced power outages.

It was the coldest Christmas in recent memory and that meant an expected increase in demand for heating as temperatures dropped. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies energy to 10 million people, for example, said demand was nearly soaring 35 percent higher than on a typical winter day.

In many states, utilities and network operators have only avoided major disasters by asking customers to conserve their energy or prepare for rolling blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily shuts off electricity to avoid shutdowns). entire system). Some of the largest operators, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Energy, National Grid and Con Edison used continuous blackouts over the weekend. Even Texas barely made it through the emergency. On Friday, the US Department of Energy allowed the state to do so ignore environmental emissions standard to keep the power on.

One of the major broadcasting companies that regulators thought it would be well prepared why the winter storm was caught off guard: PJM Interconnection, which serves 65 million people in 13 eastern states, faced three times as many power plant outages as expected.

Officials likely could have met the increased demand were it not for another predictable event that overwhelmed the system. Due to the extreme conditions, coal and gas plants and pipelines also froze, putting them out of service to provide energy in areas that run mainly on gas.

The Christmas events show how utilities and regulators continue to overestimate the reliability of fossil fuels to provide energy during a winter storm.

Frozen natural gas infrastructure cut in needed supply

It’s not that the country didn’t have enough gas to go around to meet the high demand. There was plenty of gas, but the infrastructure proved vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. Enough wells and pipes have been frozen or ruptured to bring the net to the brink.

For example, for TVA, high winds and cold temperatures affected equipment at its largest coal-fired plant and some of its natural gas-fired plants, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “At one point Friday, TVA lost more than 6,000 megawatts of power generation or nearly 20% of its load at the time, with both units of TVA’s Cumberland Fossil facility offline and other problems at some units of gas generation”, the outlet reported.

It’s too early to know exactly the cause of power outages in every state, but some utilities have struggled to generate enough power to meet demand. The first data from BloombergNEF shows that total fuels for heating and power generation for the county were about 10 percent below normal as of Monday.

The ongoing blackouts and energy-saving alerts stemmed from the one factor that large utility companies could still influence: consumer demand. Utilities have asked millions of people to keep their energy usage low to weather the storms, delaying laundry and dishwashers and keeping the thermostat low.

This is a broad strategy known as demand response, in which utilities attempt to shape their electricity use by urging customers to adjust their energy usage to avoid peak hours. But even those consumer alerts to reduce energy use are blunt and flawed. As my colleague Umair Irfan explainedongoing blackouts result in reduced power “across the board, without regard for who is most vulnerable, which parts of the power grid are closest to the brink, or where the most effective cuts can be made.”

The focus on reducing energy demand has previously worked for specific events, like when California and Texas experienced heatwaves earlier this year. But there are better ways the US can prepare for peak demand during a winter storm or heat wave. Part of the answer is better demand response, but that requires long-term infrastructure investments in energy efficiency and smart meters.

This latest storm shows, once again, that fossil fuels aren’t particularly reliable in extreme weather conditions. Yet much of energy policy focuses solely on supply: the extraction and extraction and amount of oil, gas and coal in reserve. It is often assumed that this supply will always be accessible. In the meantime, we have not been able to build any more important infrastructure throughout our energy system; increased energy storage, distributed energy generation, interconnections between the main electricity grids, redundancy and demand response are all needed. Simply adding more gas or coal to the grid won’t prevent blackouts from happening again in the future.

Repair vehicles and workers on a snowy road after dark.

People walk past workers attempting to repair a water line in Buffalo, New York on Dec. 26, 2022.Joed Viera/AFP via Getty Images