With up to half the nation facing subzero cold and some areas facing the chilliest temperatures in nearly two decades, utility companies are bracing for fallout, adding extra energy-generating capacity and repair crews, urging customers to limit power use and warning others that they're likely to see higher heating bills.
Demand for natural gas prompted Xcel Energy to ask 850 businesses in Minnesota and North Dakota to reduce their reliance on the utility and switch to propane tank supplies so the utility can meet higher demand from other customers. Natural gas use has surged nearly 50% over year-ago levels, says spokeswoman Patti Nystuen. Montana-Dakota Utilities, which services 130,000 customers in four states, was experiencing similar increases.
Dominion Power, whose service areas include Virginia and the Carolinas, has readied 11 seldom-used power generators to handle increased demand. They usually run less than 25% of the year and are used to supplement energy needs in the hottest and coldest periods, says spokesman Dan Genest.
The pervasive cold weather is expected to boost monthly heating bills, although several utilities declined to forecast how high bills might rise. Natural gas prices climbed more than 30% last year. Monday, benchmark futures gas prices for February delivery closed flat at $4.31 per million BTUs on the New York Mercantile Exchange. But prices surged to records in spot markets. Nearly 50% of U.S. households are heated by natural gas. Heating oil, used in about 10% of the nation's homes, rose 0.5% to $2.95 a gallon.
Higher demand prompted some utilities and power grid managers, such as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to reduce power consumption to avoid regional outages. ERCOT recommended setting thermostats no higher than 68 degrees and avoiding running large appliances from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The Tennessee Valley Authority expects the cold to increase demand to 32,000 megawatts on Tuesday, close to the 32,572 megawatt winter record set in January 2009, when temperatures in the TVA region averaged 9 degrees. In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy also expects to set records for natural gas usage.
The heavily populated New York City area isn't immune to cold, but utility Commonwealth Edison experiences far greater power demand during the summer. The local record for power use was set last July 19 at 13,322 megawatts, says spokeswoman D. Joy Farber. The winter record, 8,950 megawatts, was set in January 2008.
In Louisiana, where Shreveport and other cities are expected to match 128-year record lows of 14 degrees, the state Public Service Commission warned electric and gas utilities not to disconnect service of customers who hadn't paid their bills.
In northern and western Ohio, Dominion East Ohio Gas asked customers to reduce use over the next few days to prevent its distribution system from being overwhelmed.
Power outages, at least so far, are scattered and relatively muted compared with summer and autumn storm systems that often cut service to millions. That's because the cold front has not caused heavy damage to trees and utility lines. In Indiana, blanketed by about a foot of snow, more than 40,000 customers were without power, including the governor's residence in Indianapolis. Gov. Mike Pence said Monday that the home has "lots of fireplaces'' but urged others without heat to seek shelter. About 16,000 people in Illinois were without power; 7,800 were without power in West Virginia and 2,000 in Missouri.
Contributing: Kirsti Marohn, St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times; Nick Penzenstadler, the (Appleton, Wis.) Post-Crescent, Jens Manuel Krogstad, the Des Moines Register and Associated Press