Now that we’re finally thawing out from the recent cold snap that caused us so many utility problems, it’s time to reflect and see what we can improve to make the next one go smoother.
First, two days before Christmas, we started having problems with electricity.
High wind and weak tree branches may have caused a few localized outages, but it was unprecedented demand across the Tennessee Valley that caused the real issues.
As the Arctic front crept into the Southeast, our heaters shifted into overdrive, sucking down electricity at previously unseen rates.
In one 24-hour period, the Tennessee Valley Authority provided 740 gigawatt-hours of electricity, more than at any other time in its history, and broke the record for winter peak power demand.
Inability to keep up with demand and overtaxing the grid can have catastrophic consequences — we saw that last year in Texas — so the TVA and the retail power systems that supply our homes and businesses took measures to mitigate potential problems.
The 15-minute rolling blackouts we had Friday and Saturday were inconvenient, especially just before Christmas, but it was far better than the alternative. In Texas, millions of households were dark for days and hundreds of people died.
As far as emergency action plans go, this one seems to have prevented a worst-case scenario with as little impact to the public as possible.
But there are still lessons to learn.
The rolling blackouts could have been communicated to us better.
We weren’t made aware of the emergency measures TVA and local power providers were taking until after they’d already started. Giving us a 24-hour notice that we might lose power and providing a schedule for the blackouts would have gone a long way in preventing residents from being left in the dark.
The real goal should be preventing emergencies in the future.
There’s been much discussion these past few years about necessary investment in infrastructure, and here are two local cases — emergency power curtailing and Jonesborough’s system-draining water line breaks — that prove the need.
Our lines, pipes and roads are aging, and government-mandated austerity measures have put us in a precarious place.
This latest storm was called a “once-in-a-generation” freeze, but it sure seems like we’re having a lot of once-in-a-generation freezes, 100-year floods and 1,200-year droughts lately. We should be predicting and preparing for the next one.