EDITORIAL: Bitter cold to test TVA readiness

, Decatur Daily

In Alabama, we’re used to complaining about the heat — although as any Southerner knows, it’s not so much the heat as it is the humidity. But at least we’re used to dealing with extreme heat. Extreme cold is another thing entirely.

Extreme cold is once again in the forecast for north Alabama, and it will be a test of the area’s resources and preparedness.

A little more than a year ago, on Dec. 23 and 24, 2022, the Tennessee Valley Authority instituted its first rolling blackouts in the federal utility’s 90-year history.

That was when Winter Storm Elliott plunged much of the eastern United States into the deep freeze. According to National Weather Service data, Huntsville recorded lows of 3 and 9 degrees on Dec. 23 and 24, 2022, with daytime highs those days reaching only 20 and 27 degrees.

Those conditions strained utilities up and down the eastern two-thirds of the nation.

“Every power company basically east of the Rockies was struggling just because the scope and speed of the storm was so severe,” TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler told The Decatur Daily last month. “What we saw at the TVA system is this exceeded some of the design capabilities of some of our plants — coal plants and also gas plants.”

The forecast for the week ahead looks almost as frigid. Monday night’s low is currently predicted to be 17 degrees, and the low Tuesday could drop to around 6, followed by a low of 18 on Wednesday. Highs those days will top out at 37 on Monday, 26 on Tuesday and 31 on Wednesday, before winter’s vice grip starts to loosen.

TVA officials say they are up to the challenge.

“What I can guarantee is that we’ve done everything possible from what we’ve learned from Elliot and what we’re doing in the future to reduce any chance of any type of rolling blackouts,” he said.

After upgrades, TVA’s facilities can now withstand a 20-knot wind speed and minus-20-degree weather for 48 hours, Fiedler said.

“I think we’re ready. We’ve invested the time, taken the learnings from what we saw at Elliot and applied them into our plants,” he said. “We were able to meet record demands in August. Your power system is secure, and we believe that we’re ready to deliver energy this winter, keep everybody warm and safe.”

The coming week could provide the first real test of those assurances. But unlike the 2022 event, next week promises the possibility of more than just low temperatures. It also brings a chance of snow showers Sunday night through Monday night, which could mean hazardous travel conditions.

If there are power issues, that will make it more difficult for repairmen to get where they’re needed and do what they have to do.

Snow events, however, are usually an issue not so much for TVA but for local utilities, which must deal with snow-covered tree limbs falling on power lines.

In times such as these, utilities like Decatur Utilities bring in extra crews to have on standby.

“What we do is send our trucks home with our line crews because our line crews live all over our service area,” said Joe Wheeler EMC spokesman Michael Cornelison earlier this week, ahead of potentially damaging high winds. “That kind of puts them closer. They don’t have to come in here first, so it kind of speeds things along. We have our dispatch here, they watch the weather, watch for any outages.”

This winter is providing all sorts of challenges, from bitter cold to springlike thunderstorms with a threat of tornadoes. A warming climate means more energy in the atmosphere and oceans, which super-charges weather systems both hot and cold, making more extreme, more chaotic weather.

Alabama weather was already chaotic enough, but we can expect even more extreme weather systems to test our infrastructure in the future.

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Digital version of The Madison Record – Feb. 28, 2024

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