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Is Ohio at risk of power outages this winter? Here’s what energy experts say

An Ohio distribution line during the winter
An Ohio distribution line during the winter

If you lived in Ohio in December 2022, your local utility company likely asked you to scale back your gas and electricity usage amid arctic-like conditions.

That’s because Ohio — along with the Eastern U.S. — was hit with a severe winter storm that strained the U.S. power grid infrastructure. The Carolinas and Tennessee experienced rolling blackouts.

While this winter is expected to be milder, this event raised questions around the resilience of our electric power supply chain in times of extreme weather.

What exactly is at risk of going “out,” though?

Ohio energy customers didn’t experience any significant power outages during that 2022 winter storm, but it was only narrowly avoided.

The electric power supply chain consists of many components.

PJM is the regional grid operator for Ohio, 12 other states and the District of Columbia. PJM issued an Energy Emergency Alert Level 1 on Dec. 23, 2022. PJM told utilities to reach out to customers to conserve energy as supply shortfalls were expected.

The region’s power generation arm was one segment greatly affected by the storm.

A November 2023 report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation found that 13% of the amount of energy that was supposed to be generated wasn’t. This shortfall can be attributed to power plant and equipment failures, the report says, as well as fuel issues.

The report also found that 63% of outages can be linked to natural gas-fired power plants.

Natural gas production experienced some of its greatest declines in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — the Appalachian Basin. This drop doesn’t impact energy customers in these states directly, but it contributed to outages in other parts of the Eastern U.S. In the first part of 2021, the Appalachian Basin was the third largest natural gas producer in the world, behind the rest of the U.S. and Russia.

According to FERC and NERC, the Utica (blue circled area) and Marcellus (black circled area) Shale formations that make up the Appalachian Basin experienced the largest declines in natural gas production.
Courtesy of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
According to FERC and NERC, the Utica (blue circled area) and Marcellus (black circled area) Shale formations that make up the Appalachian Basin experienced the largest declines in natural gas production.

Natural gas infrastructure wasn’t properly weatherized to withstand extreme cold temperatures, the report says. The report outlines that “legislation or other regulation is needed to establish reliability rules for natural gas infrastructure necessary to support the grid.”

Pennsylvania and Ohio legislators are holding joint hearings to discuss inter-state relationships within the PJM electric grid, and the sources of energy each state uses. One hearing was held in November in Pittsburgh, and the next one will be in February in Columbus.

The role of utilities

Utilities are responsible for transmission lines, distribution lines and power substations, which were relatively stable in Ohio during the 2022 winter storm.

But that doesn’t mean they are infallible. Last week thousands of customers across the state saw power losses due to utility-owned infrastructure.

Matt Schilling is from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the agency that regulates our state’s utilities. He said falling trees knocking out equipment during storms is one of the leading causes of power outages in the state.

“We're focusing on that last mile of the grid, that distribution network, and making sure our electric utilities are keeping things repaired in a timely and efficient manner," Schilling said. “And that they're also responding to outages to get service restored as quickly as possible.”

Lauren Siburkis from FirstEnergy, which serves customers in the northeast, northwest and central part of the state, said tree trimming and thermal infrared inspections are some examples of measures the utility takes to ensure stable transmission. FirstEnergy also has a team of meteorologists to predict weather conditions.

“About a week before a potential winter storm could hit our area, we're already doing all of the prep work to ensure that we're ready to roll to make any necessary repairs to our equipment if we do experience severe weather that causes service disruptions,” she said.

Mary Ann Kabel from AES Ohio, which serves over 527,000 electric customers around Southwest and Western Ohio, said the company is hopeful this winter will go smoothly.

“We build a resilient electrical infrastructure, and we build with redundancy so that we have a backup, or we have a plan to reroute the electricity so it goes to the customers, the businesses that require that,” Kabel said.

Other possible preventative measures

In February 2023, PJM announced a forum would be created to examine its capacity markets. Those are markets in which power generators are paid for the energy they have the potential to produce. The PUCO submitted comments recommending PJM impose penalties for power generators that fail to produce the amount of electricity they are called to in times of grid stress, as well as alternate forms of resource testing.

Some experts believe the problem lies in the source of our energy. The 2023 report from FERC and NERC found wind and solar energy facilities performed more reliably than natural gas-fired plants.

Rajiv Shah is the head of North American policy and markets for Octopus Energy, a renewable energy company that manages some energy sources in Ohio.

As long as Ohio continues its dependence on natural gas, Shah said the state might experience shortfalls if similar severe weather hits.

“There might be individual facilities that have taken steps to weatherize and safeguard themselves from going offline,” Shah said. “But by and large, we're in the same position as we were last year.”

Approving wind and solar energy projects in the state is more difficult, some energy experts said. That’s in part because nine people are on the state board that must approve them, while seven review coal and natural gas projects.

Nolan Rutschilling, director of energy policy with the Ohio Environmental Council, said one option exists that’s underused in the state — demand response programs. Those either pay or provide discounts to customers for reducing their energy usage.

“We saw the utilities ask folks to turn down their thermostats and ask folks to conserve energy. And of course, that's a good step,” he said. “But we're not matching that ask with any sort of incentives for folks to be more efficient in the state.”

Currently, demand response programs are available through all of Ohio’s utilities but only to large industrial energy customers, according to the PUCO.

What we have to look forward to

For this winter, NERC reports the PJM grid should have adequate resources under normal winter conditions, but our “generators are vulnerable to derates and outages in extreme conditions.”

Schilling from the PUCO said it’s something they’ll continue to pay attention to on a regular basis.

“As the electric grid and technology changes, we're going to continue to be advocates to make sure that Ohioans can have faith that they are going to have reliable power supplies when they need it,” Schilling said.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.

Email: amartinez-smiley@wyso.org
Cell phone: 937-342-2905