Originally Published: Los Angeles Times
By Ralph Vartabedian April 25, 2014
Experts warn of a growing fragility as coal-fired plants are shut down, nuclear power is reduced and consumers switch to renewable energy.
As temperatures plunged to 16 below zero in Chicago in early January and set record lows across the eastern U.S., electrical system managers implored the public to turn off stoves, dryers and even lights or risk blackouts.
A fifth of all power-generating capacity in a grid serving 60 million people went suddenly offline, as coal piles froze, sensitive electrical equipment went haywire and utility operators had trouble finding enough natural gas to keep power plants running. The wholesale price of electricity skyrocketed to nearly $2 per kilowatt hour, more than 40 times the normal rate. The price hikes cascaded quickly down to consumers. Robert Thompson, who lives in the suburbs of Allentown, Pa., got a $1,250 bill for January.
“I thought, how am I going to pay this?” he recalled. “This was going to put us in the poorhouse.”
The bill was reduced to about $750 after Thompson complained, but Susan Martucci, a part-time administrative assistant in Allentown, got no relief on her $654 charge. “It was ridiculous,” she said.
The electrical system’s duress was a direct result of the polar vortex, the cold air mass that settled over the nation. But it exposed a more fundamental problem. There is a growing fragility in the U.S. electricity system, experts warn, the result of the shutdown of coal-fired plants, reductions in nuclear power, a shift to more expensive renewable energy and natural gas pipeline constraints. The result is likely to be future price shocks. And they may not be temporary.