Pennsylvania gets snow and cold weather every year, yet we very rarely experience the kind of large-scale blackouts Texas did last week. So why doesn’t Pennsylvania lose power every winter?
One reason is that Texas has its own power grid, while Pennsylvania is part of the Eastern Interconnection. “There’s essentially three national grids,” says Mark Miller, PPL Electric Utilities director of communications, “the eastern, the western, and Texas.”
The Eastern Interconnection is broken up into smaller regions managed by balancing authorities, such as the regional transmission organization PJM Interconnection, which coordinates electricity distribution in Pennsylvania, 12 other states and D.C.
Mike Bryson, senior vice president of operations at PJM, explains that being part of this inter-state grid helps Pennsylvania maintain power even in cold weather conditions. If one area in PJM’s territory experiences extreme weather, power can be diverted to that location from somewhere else in the region.
“One of the benefits of the PJM footprint is because we’re 13 states spread out across a pretty big footprint, we have diversity in weather, and we have diversity in resources, so it really helps to make sure that we’re not having peak demand or peak weather days across the entire footprint,” says Bryson.
It helps Pennsylvania when our weather gets cold, and energy from Pennsylvania can also be sent to other areas using this system. For example, electricity from Pennsylvania could be used to light a lightbulb in Chicago when temperatures drop there.
Another reason Pennsylvania doesn’t experience widespread power outages every winter is simply that we’re accustomed to winter weather. “Unlike Texas, we do have extreme temperatures, and we’re used to having freezing temperatures on an annual basis,” Miller says.
“The design standards that PPL uses for creating its grid, its infrastructure, take that into account,” Miller adds. He says PPL considers varying temperatures and weather conditions for their materials and technology, and the organization also regularly conducts tests and studies models to ensure that the grid can keep operating even in extreme conditions.
Bryson says that with temperatures in the teens or even below zero, power generation can still continue in our region. “The issue is how winterized you are,” he explains, “and because we’re in the Northeast and we see snow and we see wind and cold weather pretty routinely, our resources are prepared for that.”
Winterizing can involve protecting components of generators with insulation or possibly even building houses around the generators.
Texas faced challenges with energy sources freezing, which contributed to its decreased energy generation and eventual blackouts. Bryson explains that frozen coal was an issue for the northeastern U.S. in ’94, and we’ve also experienced natural gas shortages during previous cold spells.
However, Bryson says that PJM has been working with other organizations to solve those problems, and “while we haven’t eliminated all the issues, we know when they’re coming, and so we can be ready.”
Another factor that helps prevent major outages in Pennsylvania is that PJM has a significant energy reserve, says Bryson. “So if we have an issue where a coal unit or a gas unit or a nuclear unit can’t be online, we have a lot of other reserves to draw from.” And that’s another instance where the inter-state energy grid can be beneficial.
In Texas, energy companies began initiating rolling blackouts to prevent the high demand for energy from overwhelming the system. Bryson explains that rolling blackouts are a last resort, only used when something “catastrophic” is happing.
Power outages in Pennsylvania are almost never these kinds of major blackouts. Instead, they are usually caused by a tree or branch falling on a power line, says Miller. PPL works to prevent these problems by trimming trees along power lines and by replacing older poles with more sturdy materials.
So why doesn’t Pennsylvania lose power every time it snows? Miller says that essentially it’s because we’re used to, and thus prepared for, winter weather conditions.