Why the U.S. needs a grid that’s ‘bigger than the weather’

By Miranda Willson | 12/15/2023 07:05 AM EST

Winter Storm Elliott brought the East Coast close to a catastrophic power outage last December. Grid experts are still grappling with how to avoid a repeat.

Paul Daruszka clears his driveway on Dec. 26, 2022, in Hamburg, New York, after Winter Storm Elliott dumped up to 4 feet of snow on the area leaving thousands without power.

Paul Daruszka clears his driveway on Dec. 26, 2022, in Hamburg, New York, after Winter Storm Elliott dumped up to 4 feet of snow on the area leaving thousands without power. John Normile/Getty Images

Abe Silverman’s Christmas Eve quickly went from low-key to frantic when Winter Storm Elliott brought a power grid emergency to much of the Eastern seaboard.

Silverman, who worked for New Jersey’s energy regulator at the time, was visiting family in Brooklyn when calls started coming in about power plants failing amid freezing temperatures — a crisis that grid operators across the Eastern U.S. did not see coming.

“It was an experience that nobody sitting in that seat wants to go through,” said Silverman, who was general counsel at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.


A year later, Elliott’s aftermath is changing the conversation about how to keep the lights on 24/7 as extreme weather intensifies, electricity demand grows and the country shifts to clean energy. The storm also revealed the vulnerability of natural gas, the largest source of electric power nationwide, to extreme cold conditions.

A chilling report from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission illustrates what’s at stake. Characterized by high winds, intense snowfall and freezing temperatures, Winter Storm Elliott jeopardized the operation of the grid from Nebraska to New England to the Southeast.

During the storm’s worst point on Christmas Eve, a record-breaking amount of power resources stopped working at the same time, due to a mix of mechanical failures at plants as well as interruptions to natural gas production, processing and transportation. Four electric utilities — Duke Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Louisville Gas & Electric and South Carolina-based Santee Cooper — all temporarily shut off electricity to some homes and businesses amid a power shortfall.

“This is a come to Jesus moment for a lot of market operators and planners. It’s like, ‘Wow, everything we had available is not enough,’” said Jonathon Monken, a former senior official at PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest grid operator. “It’s one of those examples of how you need to build a grid that’s bigger than the weather.”

No deaths or major disruptions were attributed to the power outages during Elliott. But grid experts and regulators were alarmed by the sheer magnitude of power plants that went down, the number of states that were impacted and the near-collapse of the natural gas heating system in New York City.  

The report from NERC and FERC outlines nearly a dozen steps that could help prevent future winter grid crises, from better freeze protection at power plants to more monitoring of infrastructure to better coordination between the natural gas and electric industries. Several recommendations focus on natural gas infrastructure, since gas plants and pipelines were significantly impacted during Elliott.

But even after studying the winter event for the past 11 months, NERC and FERC — the two organizations with the most insight into the U.S. power grid — said there are still unknowns about what exactly went wrong and how close the eastern U.S. grid came to a cascading, widespread outage.

There’s also only so much that NERC and FERC can do. Neither entity oversees the operation of natural gas pipelines and production systems, nor the nexus between natural gas and the electric grid. Grid experts say that puts the power system at risk.

But only Congress can expand oversight.

“Everything in this report says we’ve got a problem in our gas system, but none of us seem to have any authority over it,” said Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Silverman, who is now director of a clean energy program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, called the storm “a test of how broken [the] government [is] in this country.”

“However you look at this, this is as clear a call for government action as you can possibly imagine,” he said.

Prior to Elliott, previous storms had highlighted the same wintertime vulnerabilities. In 2021, for example, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shut off power for days for millions of Texans during Winter Storm Uri because there wasn’t enough electric supplies to meet demand. Over 240 people died — many from hypothermia after their heat shut off.

Still, Elliott affected a much broader region of the grid — 1.5 million square miles as opposed to 870,000 — that many energy experts had thought was highly reliable compared to Texas’ isolated grid.

“The level of angst on all sides seems to be higher,” said Ted Thomas, a former state energy regulator in Arkansas who now works as a consultant.

Timing is also important. A number states are trying to transition away from natural gas and coal to address climate change, which is creating new reliability challenges, NERC warned this week.

To reduce planet-warming emissions across the entire U.S. economy, climate experts advocate for a clean energy-powered grid and more electric cars and heat pumps. Those changes, however, would make Americans even more dependent on the electric system, raising the stakes for those trying to make the grid run more smoothly during extreme storms that are becoming more common with climate change.

A storm like no other

Among the most striking findings since Winter Storm Elliott is that grid operators and electric utilities thought they were prepared.

In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, PJM and several electric utilities in the Southeast underestimated how much power their customers would use by upwards of 10 percent, according to NERC and FERC’s report. For example, PJM’s initial forecast for peak power demand for Dec. 23 — made days in advance — was 14 percent lower than it ended up being that day.

Overseeing the flow of power for more than 65 million people, PJM was able to keep the lights on throughout the multiday storm. But it was still forced to implement emergency measures after losing close to one quarter of its power capacity to outages.

It’s highly unusual for multiple grid operators to “substantially” underforecast power demand, said Travis Kavulla, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at NRG Energy, a large Texas-based power company.

“Usually it’s exactly the opposite — an overforecast of demand in the name of caution, that results in overcommitment of dispatchable resources that then has to be ramped down,” Kavulla said, referring to resources like natural gas and nuclear as opposed to wind and solar.

Also notable is that the storm caused problems in PJM at all. In contrast to other parts of the U.S. such as Texas and New England, NERC last year predicted no major winter reliability issues in PJM because of its high reserve margin. The margin refers to the amount of power resources in excess of what grid operators expect the system to need at its peak.

The fact that PJM was forced to ask customers to conserve power during Elliott despite its 28 percent reserve margin shocked many observers. It also has implications for consumers, who ultimately foot the bill when PJM pays extra power plants to be available for events like Elliott.

But in the end, many of those power plants couldn’t deliver. “They’re paid to be ready — it’s like being on call in an hourly job,” said Monken, the former PJM official, who is now principal at the consulting firm Converge Strategies. “So taking those payments and then not delivering when you need to come into the office … is really problematic.”

Plant owners have said forecasting errors are to blame for some of the outages. A gas plant owner, for example, might be less likely to buy natural gas ahead of time if they’re told that power demand won’t be very high in the coming days, Kavulla said.

Since the storm, various plant owners have paid millions of dollars in fines for failing to show up when needed.

The industry has also been working to determine “the root causes of these outages,” reassess their winter preparations and correct potential problems, Todd Snitchler, president and CEO of the Electric Power Supply Association, said in a statement this month.

PJM, meanwhile, has proposed changes to better account for the risk of multiple natural gas plants and other resources going offline. The grid operator has also improved its process for evaluating power plants’ sturdiness, adjusted its forecasting for extreme weather and strengthened communications with plant owners, said Michael Bryson, senior vice president of operations at PJM.

“We feel that we’re ready for this winter, and we will continue to work with generators between now, the start of winter and throughout winter,” Bryson said.

But climate change is causing more frequent and severe extreme weather events, scientists say, which could make it harder for grid operators to stay ahead of future storms.

There was little historical precedent for an event like Elliott, said Vincent Duane, a former senior vice president at PJM. The storm’s extreme cold and high winds ultimately hit “the eastern two thirds of the lower 48 states,” according to NERC and FERC’s report. That made it hard for utilities in the Southeast, for example, to call on their immediate neighbors for power supplies, since they were also impacted.

The temperature swings were extreme as well. In parts of Tennessee, the temperature dropped 46 degrees in the span of five hours, according to reporting from the Tennessee Valley Authority. In Charleston, West Virginia, temperatures plunged 42 degrees in six hours, NERC and FERC said.

“The circumstances of the kind of storm that happened here, particularly by the time it got to the mid-Atlantic, on a Saturday right on the eve of Christmas. … I don’t think there’s [historical] data out there that would’ve helped people come up with better forecasts,” said Duane, who is now principal at the consulting firm Copper Monarch.

‘Unavailable’ gas

Elliott is adding urgency to ongoing debates about how electric transmission lines and natural gas plants fit into the evolving energy resource mix.

During the multiday storm, natural gas production in Appalachian reserves dropped by as much as 54 percent. Facilities that treat, transport and process gas also had freezing or other problems. Across eight of the 15 interstate pipelines studied by NERC and FERC, outages lasted an average of nine hours, and in some cases, longer than three days.

Although gas plants can be ramped up and down quickly, the fuel by its nature cannot be stored on-site, so many gas plants simply had no gas during the event.

“I think post-Elliott, people are like, ‘Wow, gas maybe isn’t reliable and dispatchable, and gas wasn’t there when we needed it,’” said Ric O’Connell, executive director of the GridLab, which studies how to incorporate renewable energy onto the grid.

Moving forward, more gas plant owners may look to store some of the fuel at power plants in its liquid form. Although liquefying natural gas can be expensive and energy-intensive, it provides a backup fuel option if gas pipelines stop delivering.

Natural gas was not the only energy source that experienced challenges. Solar also underperformed significantly Dec. 24, and coal plants froze up as well.

Still, regulators need to recognize that gas is not necessarily “the opposite of renewables” from a reliability perspective, said James Coleman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University.

“With natural gas, you have more control than with coal, nuclear, etc., but the challenge is that … [gas and renewable energy] depend on instantaneous, minute-by-minute supply,” Coleman said.

One of the recommendations from NERC and FERC was that the Department of Energy study whether the existing gas pipeline infrastructure is adequate. Natural gas pipeline companies, gas utilities and segments of the power industry have endorsed that recommendation and called for more gas infrastructure, which they say could ease delivery issues.

Others argue that the storm should reinforce a shift away from natural gas and other fossil fuels that drive climate change, which increases the frequency of extreme weather. The Department of Energy estimates that power outages from extreme weather of all kinds — from blizzards to heat waves — have doubled in the last two decades.

Gas producers cited frozen drilling equipment and wellhead freeze-offs as the main causes of the delivery issues during Elliott, according to the report. And trade associations representing the gas production and pipeline industry say that companies did everything they could to prevent major issues.

“We are in the business of selling gas, which creates a financial incentive to do all that is prudent to prevent the loss of supply,” Patricia Jagtiani, executive vice president of the Natural Gas Supply Association, said in a statement.

Amy Andryszak, president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Pipeline Association, said pipelines also “have a strong record of delivering on their firm commitments, even in extreme weather.” Firm commitments refer to contracts that some natural gas utilities and electric power companies sign with pipeline operators to ensure access to gas.

“There is no pervasive reliability problem across interstate natural gas pipelines like the electric reliability problems that led to the creation of NERC,” Andryszak said.

Still, firm commitment contracts are not always used by independent power plant owners because they can be expensive. And at least one large gas plant in the PJM region “reported, on the morning of December 23, that it was forced to cease generating entirely because ‘gas fuel [was] unavailable’” even though it had a signed contract in place, NERC and FERC said.

NERC and FERC also said they were unable to get sufficient details from some gas producers and pipeline companies they contacted when investigating the storm.

Thomas, the former Arkansas utility regulator, said the gas industry’s mindset is geared toward “fulfilling their contracts” as opposed to keeping the lights on and the gas flowing. Compared to the highly planned power grid, gas pipelines and related infrastructure are “built incrementally by contract,” he said.

“There’s a fundamental difference between the gas and electric systems, and when they rub like this and we’re relying on gas in extreme weather, it creates a challenging situation,” Thomas said.

One infrastructure solution that could help during future storms is more long-distance transmission lines, according to some state and federal energy regulators. Greater ties between far-flung states could allow grid operators that have extra power to send it to where it’s most needed.

More transmission could also unlock proposed new wind, solar and battery storage projects that have been unable to come online because of transmission constraints.

“Let’s get those [projects] interconnected, and let’s get them online so they can provide the energy and capacity we need,” O’Connell said.