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Gas and Power Systems Battle Cold at Full Capacity; Warm-Up Coming

As cold -- albeit waning -- continued to grip much of the United States Tuesday, power plants in PJM Interconnection and ISO New England wereimpacted by natural gas delivery issues and/or high prices for the fuel. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) said pipelines into New England were constrained by the Polar Vortex. Meanwhile, throughput at a central Alabama gas utility was running at 10-year record levels.

Good news was on the horizon Tuesday for utilities, gas-fired power plants and other natural gas end-users as a forecasted warm up Wednesday saw steep drops on prices for physical gas traded Tuesday in the Northeast (see related story). In the meantime pipelines and storage fields were showing the strain of flat out deliveries going into a second night of extreme cold in the East.

PJM Interconnection set a record for load Tuesday morning of 138,600 MW, breaking the previous record of about 136,000 MW set back in 2007, said Michael Kormos, executive vice president of operations, during a press briefing Tuesday morning. PJM was expecting a peak of around 140,000 MW Tuesday afternoon as most of the region was seeing temperatures below zero, with wind chills much below.

A "large number" of generators shut down or may have problems due to the cold, Kormos said. Some of the trouble stemmed from the availability of natural gas. Kormos said he did not know how much generating capacity was lost due to gas availability or other issues such as weatherization at power plants.

"We're not asking a lot of questions as to why a unit is down. If we're told it's down, we're just reacting to that and moving on," he said late Tuesday morning. Emergency power was being procured from the Midwest and New York.

ISO New England was seeing the dispatch of coal- and oil-fueled generators over those fueled by natural gas due to skyrocketing gas prices from heating demand and pipeline constraints.

According to the ISO New England website, the fuel mix early Tuesday afternoon was about 27% natural gas, 29% nuclear, about 15% each of coal and oil, and about 8% renewables and hydropower.

In 2012 on an annualized basis, natural gas-fueled plants accounted for about 52% of power generation in ISO New England. Oil-fueled plants produced a little less than 1% of the power, and coal-fueled plants produced about 3%, said ISO New England spokeswoman Ellen Foley. "What's happening is as a result of the pipeline constraints and as well as the increased price for natural gas...the power plants that use the other fuels have become more competitively priced,” Foley said.

"Right now, New England is in good shape in terms of power system conditions...Today [Tuesday] we're looking at a peak later on this afternoon, early evening of 20,860 megawatts. We've already experienced a few spells of extreme cold weather here in New England beginning in early December. And back on the 17th of December we had a higher peak; we peaked at 21,514 megawatts."

The pipelines that serve New England from the west continued to operate at near-full capacity on Tuesday. Foley said. “They're supplying both their LDC customers and also electric generation. There has been liquefied natural gas supply from the Canadian Maritimes that has relieved some of these pipeline constraints.”

Day-ahead electricity prices were more than $200 a megawatt hour in both New York and New England, according to EIA.

ISO New England has long suffered from the fact that it's at the end of the traditional trunkline pipelines from the Gulf Coast. The Marcellus Shale hasn't been much help because new pipeline capacity reaching into New England has yet to be constructed.

"Most natural gas-fired generators do not hold long-term fuel-delivery contracts but instead rely on the release of unneeded pipeline capacity by local gas distribution companies, which is capacity that may not be available when the demand for natural gas is high," ISO New England said last month in a winter supply-demand forecast.

"All pipelines from the west and south into New England remain constrained today," EIA said in a Tuesday bulletin. Flows on Texas Eastern Transmission were constrained at "key points." And flows of liquefied natural gas stored at the Canaport LNG terminal, as well as eastern Canadian gas imports into New England were scheduled to be 858 MMcf/d Tuesday, representing a 75% increase from Monday, EIA said.

Meanwhile in Nebraska, the Nebraska Public Power District set a new all-time winter peak for power demand on Monday. However, a natural gas-fueled combined-cycle plant on the system was not stepping in to help because high demand for gas for home heating and other purposes had driven up gas prices by more than 300%.

And in Alabama, natural gas utility Alagasco Corp., which serves 420,000 customers in central and northern Alabama set a 10-year record for system throughput on Monday and was expected to near that again on Tuesday, spokesperson Sherri Goodman told NGI. She declined to disclose throughput numbers, though.

In Ohio, the Lorain County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security said about 2,200 Columbia Gas customers had lost natural gas service to their homes overnight Monday. And in Columbus the offices of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) were closed due to a water main break. "For the public seeking to contact the PUCO, we expect to reopen Wednesday..." the regulator said. To the east, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission was open Tuesday and calling on customers to conserve electricity.

Continuing sub-freezing temperatures in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) region pushed the demand for power Tuesday morning to a new winter record, with electric use peaking at 57,277 megawatts in the hour ending at 8 a.m. CST, ERCOT said.

There was sufficient generation available Monday evening and Tuesday morning to serve expected needs and maintain the desired level of operating reserves, even with demand exceeding Monday's 55,487 megawatt morning peak and 56,031 megawatt evening peak, the grid operator for most of Texas said.

ERCOT discontinued a conservation alert that began Monday when high demand and sudden electric generation outages in the early morning hours caused operating reserves to drop below the 2,300 MW trigger for an energy emergency alert.

On Tuesday the New York Independent System Operator called for voluntary demand response. "System conditions will be tight today with some generating units either not at full capacity or unavailable as a result of the extreme cold, icing conditions and high demand for natural gas," it said.

As was the case Monday, there were plenty of pipeline notices to go around on Tuesday. A few:

Due to extreme weather and high loads on the Columbia Gas Transmission (TCO) system, the pipeline on Tuesday called a "critical day" for storage and a "critical day" for transportation in certain market areas as well as restricted non-firm capacity through various internal constraints on its system. TCO said it "has seen efforts to bypass these restrictions through simultaneous scheduling of injections and withdrawals from storage. To preserve reliability of storage and avoid risks to system integrity, TCO is issuing an operational flow order (OFO)."

Algonquin Gas Transmission, which serves New England, issued a critical notice effective Wednesday. The pipeline said all its segments and meter stations were scheduled at capacity. 

An OFO was issued for Williams' Transcontinental Pipeline (Transco) on Tuesday. Transco said it was also requiring customers to flow under operational capacity on some parts of the line due to "operating conditions, pressures or other considerations" arising from the cold and high demand.

NGPL PipeCo LLC removed an OFO Tuesday morning for its market delivery zone but advised shippers and point operators to limit hourly takes at all delivery points.

Northern Natural Gas Co. issued system overrun limitation (SOL) notices for Wednesday's and Thursday's gas days for Zones ABC, D and EF, an area that covers most of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and parts of Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co. LP issued a critical notice Tuesday and called on all delivery point operators to minimize over-takes, and for all receipt point operators to minimize under-deliveries.

Tennessee Gas Pipeline said it was continuing Tuesday's OFO critical day 1 and imbalance warnings for Zones 1,2,4,5 and 6 through Wednesday’s gas day.

And Spectra Energy's Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline, which serves, Central, Mid-Atlantic and New England states, experienced an unplanned outage at its Delmont, PA, compressor station, forcing it to issue an OFO. 

According to weather forecasts, temperatures in Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Atlanta were expected to climb from Tuesday into the remainder of the week.

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