Temps fall, but Western Pa. power plants, gas lines built to operate during big chills

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Joe Napsha, Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.
·5 min read
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Feb. 23—As some Western Pennsylvanians awoke Sunday morning with temperatures close to zero, they got the heat and power they needed from their natural gas service and electric power plants to keep warm. Meanwhile, millions of Texans were freezing in flooded homes.

That catastrophe did not happen in the Northeast and other cold-weather states because utilities built weather-resistant power plants that can withstand lower temperatures and many have installed back-up generators, said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for Edison Electric Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association for the electric industry.

But, in the warm-weather South, some generating plants "barely have walls around them," exposing large power-producing turbines to subfreezing temperatures, Aaronson said. That's fine on hot summer days when the air can cool generators that create heat as well as power, "but it doesn't take into account the extreme (cold) weather," said Aaronson, whose trade association represents investor-owned utilities in all 50 states, with members providing power to about 220 million Americans.

Power plant operators generally take into account a 50-year rolling average of temperatures, then build facilities to meet those temperatures, Aaronson said.

Built for chill

To protect equipment and fluid lines from freezing, water, fuel, oil and natural gas lines are buried when possible at the Conemaugh Generating Station across the Conemaugh River from Seward. Where aboveground, the pipes are heat traced with wrapped electric heat tape and insulation, said James Panaro, executive vice president of Robindale Energy & Associated Companies, the Latrobe-based firm that operates the plant.

Buildings have siding and insulation, and fuel storage piles and belt lines are kept enclosed rather than open to the atmosphere, Panaro said. Conveyor belts and other pumping systems are kept operating "whenever we see sustained weather forecasts below 20 degrees," he said.

Those are extra capital costs either during plant construction or implemented over time through experience when extremely low temps would expose shortfalls in the plant's systems, Panaro said.

While Texas utility companies grapple with the cost of retrofitting, it is easier and less costly to take those weather-resilient steps when the plants are built, Aaronson said.

At Pittsburgh-based Peoples Gas Co., facilities are heated and insulated against low temperatures, said Barry Kukovich, a spokesman for the company that serves about 740,000 customers in Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.

The company has installed "driers" in the pipeline to evaporate any water vapor that might be in the methane, Kukovich said. There also are sensors placed in the pipelines that detect moisture level, he said.

Duquesne Light Co. uses equipment designed for durability during these harsh weather conditions. All external control cabinets have heaters to prevent condensation and subsequent freezing. Those facilities that are exposed to outside element also are nexposed to some level of electrical current flow, which produces inherent heating, said Ashley Macik, a Duquesne Light spokeswoman.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania & Maryland has invested about $2 billion to modernize its natural gas distribution system and arranges enough supply of natural gas so it can provide service to its customers on an average-day temperature of -5 degrees, said Lee Gierczynski, a Columbia Gas spokesman.

"We use heaters on pipes and regulators to protect equipment from freezing," Gierczynski said. Peoples Gas serves 435,000 customers in Pennsylvania.

One of the lessons that can be learned from what happened in Texas is the importance of the regional electric power grid. Pennsylvania is less vulnerable to the power supply problems than Texas because Pennsylvania is linked to PJM Connect, which covers 13 states and provides a back-up system, Aaronson said.

"The value of the energy grid is great. You can pool power," Aaronson said.

PJM, based near Philadelphia, said in a statement that most of the power plants in its footprint are constructed in anticipation of freezing temperatures. PJM works with members to prepare for cold weather by testing resources, conducting drills and surveying generators for fuel inventory. During a heavy demand for power last week, PJM said it was able to meet needs in its customer base and provide electricity to neighboring regions.

One of the lessons that could be learned from the failure of Texas' power grid is that investments in power plant resilience should be made all across the country.

"I think there are opportunities for companies to look at what happened and look at upgrades to prepare for catastrophic lower temperatures," Aaronson said.

"It's critical that utilities continue investing in infrastructure upgrades and taking proactive steps to prepare for extreme weather events," Duquesne Light's Macik said.

Exodus of coal

Panaro, whose companies take waste coal and burn it at the Conemaugh power plant, believes there is a growing potential for this type of shutdown to occur in the PJM grid as more and more coal-fired power plants are retired and replaced by cheaper natural gas-fueled power plants.

"We really have not seen the numbing sustained period of at, or below, zero degrees since 2013-14 to really test the PJM system here," Panaro said, pointing out many of the coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania that were running fully to serve the record demand that winter have been shut down.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, jnapsha@triblive.com or via Twitter .