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Polar Vortex 2019: Why a raging fire sparked a request to turn down the heat

By Posted on February 13, 2019

Nathalie Osborn
Director, Smart Grid Initiatives

If you live in the Midwest you are all too familiar with winter and how quickly the weather can shift to dangerous conditions. Mother Nature has certainly taken her toll on us this winter with extreme weather ranging from the Polar Vortex to damaging ice and high winds.

Michigan residents received an added punch when our two largest utilities asked all customers to reduce both electric and gas usage despite below freezing temps. While these requests were fueled by a fire at a critical Consumers Energy gas compressor station in Southeast Michigan, the incident led to increased concerns and questions about the reliability of our infrastructure and why customers were asked to endure less-than-cozy temps to prevent a total loss of power.

Without realizing it, Michigan residents were offered a lesson in demand response, an energy conservation strategy that if effectively adopted on a larger scale, ultimately has the potential to reduce the need to add new gas generation plants on the grid.

But perhaps one of the biggest points of confusion for most customers is why they were asked to scale back on electric usage due to a fire at a gas plant.

So why were we asked to reduce our electricity use?
In Michigan, most of our homes and buildings are heated with natural gas, yet we only produce a fraction of what is needed while we import the rest. Natural gas not only flows into Michigan from other States and Canada for our use, it also flows through Michigan’s interstate pipelines to the northeastern US and Canada. Michigan is also home to the largest natural gas storage capacity in our nation, storing one tenth of the nation’s total supply.

The blaze at the Consumers Energy compressor station (which supplies 64% of the natural gas to their customers) quickly became very concerning – both as a safety issue and for its potential impact on our natural gas supply.

So while it’s understandable that Consumers Energy asked its large industrial customers to curtail gas use and residential customers to dial back their thermostats to 65 degrees, the reasons behind the request from DTE to reduce electric use are likely not as clear.

The simple answer is that our electricity grid and natural gas infrastructure are interconnected. Our North American energy grid is an increasingly complex distribution and transmission system impressively engineered to provide electricity and natural gas 24/7, second-by-second, across great distances to businesses, facilities, schools and homes at the convenience of a flip of a switch.

Electricity is generated from more than a dozen different sources, including renewables, like solar and wind, however 35% of our nation’s electricity is generated from natural gas-fired plants. Here in Michigan, nearly 25% of our electricity is sourced from natural gas.

In addition to the variety of sources generating electricity, there are significant differences in how these sources need to be operated to ensure grid stability. For example, natural gas plants can be ramped up or down quickly which makes them ideal for supporting peak demand, while coal and nuclear plants require much longer times to ramp up or down. Electricity production from renewable sources, like solar and wind are dependent on how much the sun is shining or wind is blowing.

These different sources are all interconnected through a complex system consisting of switches, transformers, overhead and underground high-voltage cables. This physical system is controlled through an intricate network of independent system operators and regional transmission organizations who are constantly monitoring the grid to help ensure utilities can deliver reliable power to customers.

Delicately balancing our electricity supply and demand on our grid’s increasingly aging and fragile infrastructure on a daily basis is no easy feat on a good day. Throw in severe weather and a catastrophic fire and well…it becomes a lot clearer why the utilities needed extra support to keep our interrelated electric grid and gas network up and running.

Where do we go from here?
Harsh winter conditions in the Midwest will continue to bring ice storms and high winds that could lead to downed power lines and outages. Utility companies like DTE and Consumers Energy will respond and restore power as quickly as possible. At the same time, efforts are being made to get smarter about how energy is provided. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but these efforts could mean less pain for both providers and customers down the road.

Governor Whitmer quickly responded to this latest incident with a formal request to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) for a statewide review of our energy systems to access our supply and delivery infrastructures and contingency plans to mitigate risk.

Utilities are increasing their investments in renewables and infrastructure upgrades, combining renewables with energy storage and embracing smart mobility solutions to support electric vehicles. DTE is investing heavily in wind energy, our most abundant and cost-effective form of renewable energy in Michigan today. Consumers Energy operates the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, one of the largest pumped storage hydroelectric facilities in the world, and recently dedicated the state’s first combined solar and battery storage system, Circuit West in Grand Rapids.

At NextEnergy, we have been working with DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, IBEW/NECA and the US Department of Energy on a smart building program. LiTES (Lighting Technology Energy Solutions) is designed to promote the adoption, and evaluate the benefits of advanced lighting controls in small- to medium-sized buildings. Not only do these smart technologies lead to more efficient buildings, they also create the opportunity for utilities to partner with building owners to reduce demand without a noticeable impact to occupants. This level of control could be very useful in situations similar to what we experienced during the Polar Vortex.

As we enter into the next round of winter storms, be assured utilities and many additional developers, energy service providers and stakeholders, including NextEnergy are working to innovate smarter, cleaner, more accessible solutions and accelerate a more resilient grid and sustainable energy future.

If you’re interested in learning more about our US energy market and future, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) recently released their Annual Energy Outlook 2019.


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