Increase In Extreme Cold Events Posing New Challenges for Energy Utilities

by | Feb 7, 2024 | Customer Service, Education, Electrical Grids, Financial Shock, Infrastructure, Service Line Responsibilities

While it’s intuitive to link the warming of the planet with hotter and longer heatwaves, longer droughts, more wildfires, and heavier rain, the link is less obvious when it comes to an increase in extreme cold events across North America, particularly in areas that have not historically experienced severe winter weather. However, the scientific community generally agrees that drastic changes in the Arctic, which is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, are triggering the circular pattern of winds, known as the polar vortex, to spread southward more often.  

Extreme cold events can have a significant impact on energy utilities. According to a research study by Ball State University, the number of blizzards in the U.S. has increased by almost a factor of four since the mid-20th century, and heavy snow, ice, and wind from these events can cause significant problems. Ice accretion and heavy snow on powerlines can cause a line to short circuit or break. Strong winds, in conjunction with these other conditions, can compound the issue, causing lines to go down or blowing trees down onto the lines, which is the cause of 40% of power outages during the winter according to a National Geographic survey. Aside from powerline issues, utilities can be faced with communication interruptions, limited access to facilities, and reduced workforce due to unsafe travel conditions during extreme weather events. Cold weather alone can cause components of the electric system to fail, particularly as they age. As much of the electric infrastructure is already operating well beyond the life span for which it was designed, these failures may increase.  

One example of an extreme cold weather event in a region that is normally more temperate is Winter Storm Uri in Texas in February 2021. This storm caused numerous outages and the cold interfered with the operation of sensors, hydraulic lines, and other support equipment at some power plants, causing shutdowns. Uri left close to 4.5 million homes and businesses without power at its peak, killing more than a hundred people while producing an estimated $295 billion in damage. Another example, Winter Storm Elliott in December 2022, brought record-setting cold temperatures to many parts of the United States and Canada. The storm intensified into a bomb cyclone with extremely frigid conditions reaching a number of areas that do not regularly experience freezing temperatures. As a result, 6.3 million households across the U.S. and 1.1 million across Canada were without power at some point during the storm. 

Private infrastructure issues compound problems for energy providers, particularly during extreme weather events. When an outage occurs, customers call their utility first, at a time when staffing may be stretched thin. They learn, often for the first time, that they are responsible for fixing the exterior electric line and components at their own expense before reconnection, leaving them to secure repair assistance under duress. This can result in a delayed reconnection, ancillary outage-related expenses, and dissatisfaction with the utility.  

HomeServe partners with utilities to offer homeowners repair service plans to help them get back up and running following an outage and protect against electrical hazards by ensuring integrity of equipment and code-compliant repairs with local, licensed, and vetted contractors. Our suite of protection plans for a range of residential lines and systems includes Exterior Electric Line Coverage which is available in configurations that can include protection against tree and wind damage and electrical surges. During Winter Storm Uri, HomeServe experienced unprecedented monthly job volume in Texas, with more than 4,800 jobs deployed to the company’s network contractors throughout the state. Partially due to Winter Storm Elliott, December 2022 was HomeServe’s busiest month ever, with 52,000 job deployments.