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Four Ways Winter Weather Is Causing Energy Supply Problems

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Photograph by Paul Mayne/Flickr

A massive winter storm hit much of the U.S. Tuesday, dumping heavy snowfall along the East Coast and sending temperatures plunging from 15 to 30 degrees below normal from the Mid-Atlantic region to the upper Midwest. But in addition to causing school closings and disrupting highway traffic, frigid winter weather has far-reaching effects on energy production and distribution—from slowing oil and gas wells and refineries to briefly shutting down a nuclear power plant in the Midwest because of ice.

Here are some examples of how the cold can cause problems.

Natural Gas Demand—and Prices—Soar
Extremely cold temperatures drive up demand for natural gas for heating, increasing withdrawals from underground storage facilities and driving up prices. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that during the week ending January 10, more than 285 billion cubic feet of gas was withdrawn, the most on record. Platts, the energy information service, reported that spot natural gas prices in the Northeast surged to all-time highs on January 21.  EIA analyst Angelina LaRose said that suppliers typically withdraw from reserves during cold snaps, but that surge in demand during cold weather is bumping up against the limitations of natural gas pipeline capacity particularly in the Northeast. “The capacity going into New England is more than 85 percent utilized right now,” she said.

Propane Shortages Hit
Platts reported on January 21 that the price of propane surged to $2.45 per gallon, the highest on record and a surge of nearly 70 cents, as stocks of propane dipped to record lows for January.  In Ohio, shortages prompted Gov. John Kasich proclaimed a “state of energy emergency” and lifted restrictions on driving times and working hours for truck drivers delivering propane and heating oil.

Oil and Gas Production Slows
Freezing temperatures also make it more difficult to get oil and gas out of the ground. EIA reported that so-called “freeze-offs” occurred in parts of the Marcellus Shale play in northeastern Pennsylvania in early January. Refineries, too, can suffer interruptions because of cold weather: During the deep freeze of early January, refineries from Detroit to Memphis reported equipment problems caused by the low temperatures. The problems caused a spike in gasoline prices in the Midwest.

Nuclear Plants Get Iced In
At Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant, below-freezing temperatures earlier this month caused an icy buildup on one of the six sluice gates that control the flow of Missouri River water, which is used to cool and condense steam from the plant’s turbines. When workers couldn’t close the gate, the Omaha Public Power District was forced to temporarily shut down the plant.  “We’re still in the middle of studying how exactly it happened,” said Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson. He said that the plant has barriers in place to protect the cooling system from river ice, but that officials are investigating the possibility that a leaking pipe over the sluice gate caused the ice buildup. In January 2010, one of the three reactors at the Salem nuclear power plant in New Jersey was forced to shut down briefly when ice got into its cooling system.