Low temps, high power bills: cold heats up system’s demand

Brad Hicks • Feb 3, 2014 at 12:47 PM

The biting cold temperatures of January are coming to an end, and early February is expected to bring much milder weather to the area.

January will end much in the same way it began. High temperatures are expected to reach the mid-40s today. The high Jan. 1 in the Tri-Cities area was around 50 degrees. High temperatures for Saturday and Sunday are projected to be in or hover around the 50-degree mark. Lows are expected to be around freezing this weekend.

While some relief from frigid temperatures is in sight, January’s cold is expected to have a big impact on the bills of Johnson City Power customers.

Johnson City Power Board CEO Jeff Dykes said the utility’s rates have not changed — the higher bills are strictly a result of higher power usage.

“When it’s that cold and your unit is running to heat your home, whether it be electric, gas or whatever, if it’s running, it’s not going to back off. Because it’s so cold, that unit is going to continue to run,” Dykes said.

And January was cold. While it is still a little too early to determine how January sits in the race for coldest month on record, the month saw its share of record-setting days.

The National Weather Service’s office in Morristown said record-low temperatures were recorded at the NWS’ Tri-Cities Airport location Jan. 7, Jan. 8 and Wednesday.

The low temperature Jan. 7 was 2 degrees, which breaks the 3-degree mark set in 1959. The low on Jan. 8 was minus-2 degrees, breaking the record of 5 degrees set in 1970 and the low temperature Wednesday was also minus-2 degrees, slightly less than the record of zero set in 1977.

NWS data said there were 19 days in the Tri-Cities during January in which temperatures had a negative departure from normal temperatures, meaning temperatures on these days were lower than the norm. Of these 19 days, nine days saw a double-digit negative departure from normal temperatures.

NWS Morristown office Meteorologist Derek Eisentrout said January’s colder-than-usual weather was caused by a high-pressure system covering the western half of the country, a low-pressure system covering the eastern half and a strong jet stream.

He said the jet stream moved cold arctic air masses across the Southeast.

But he said this weather pattern is now changing, and systems will be moving to the area from the Southwest. This, Eisentrout said, should lead to temperatures returning to a more normal state.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has seen record power demand during the month, and Dykes said the TVA not only saw peak demand Jan. 7, but both the TVA and Johnson City Power Board saw a peak Thursday. But these peaks don’t also equate to increased revenue, as Dykes said utilities will not see the revenues many expect when “peak” days are followed by days of expected or normal temperatures, as was the case in January.

“When the peak demand hits, we have to pay TVA for that peak demand that we’re purchasing,” he said. “When the temperatures go above normal the rest of the month, although customers’ bills will be higher, we don’t get the normal revenue. I say ‘normal’ because you budget based on what a normal year is, what a normal January is — the temperatures that you expect in January — you budget based on those.”

Still, the peak days will impact customer bills. Dykes said depending on a customer’s billing cycle, some of the charges for these peak days will be included on their January statement and some on their February bill.

“We expect customers to see higher bills,” Dykes said.

Dykes said the Johnson City Power Board takes steps to keep these peaks down, including voltage reduction on its system to reduce bills from the TVA. The board also disseminates information to its customers from the TVA whenever the TVA requests conservation.

The Johnson City Power Board has also seen more people seeking help through its Hand Up program. Through the program, funds donated by customers are provided to local organizations such as Good Samaritan Ministries and the Salvation Army to provide assistance to those needing financial help with their energy bills.

“I know in talking to (the organization that distributes the funding), their request for aid has really shot up,” Dykes said. “That’s kind of a sign of the really cold weather and the spikes in the weather, and it’s also a sign of the economy. There’s still some recovery to be made for a lot of folks.”

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