Folks in Northwest Montana will likely talk about the cold snap of January ‘24 for a long time. The extended cold weather arrived via whiteout conditions on January 11 and persisted through January 19. It turned out to be Kalispell’s most intense and prolonged cold in over 20 years, and shattered multiple records while it froze pipes and pushed the electric grid to new limits. 

The local Flathead Electric Co-op (FEC) grid is part of the Pacific Northwest’s (PNW) Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) grid, which stretches from the Hungry Horse and Libby dams through the Columbia River basin all the way to Portland, Oregon. The January ‘24 cold snap reached beyond the Flathead Valley and impacted nearly the entire PNW. From an electric grid perspective, that meant practically every home and business in the entire region was asking its heat sources to work harder than normal at the same time 

As a result, electric demand on both the local FEC and regional BPA grids reached unprecedented levels. “The grid was stretched almost to the breaking point, here in the Flathead Valley and throughout the Pacific Northwest,” FEC General Manager Mark Johnson reflects. “If we had lost a generation resource like a dam, or experienced a major outage that cold load prevented us from quickly resolving, the situation could’ve been dire. As a region, we got lucky – and electric utilities are not in the business of luck.”  

Data released by the National Weather Service (NWS) shows that between January 12 and 19, an astounding 109 individual daily temperature records were either broken or tied at long-term volunteer weather observing stations. NWS summarized, “Many also recorded top-10 all-time coldest high, low, and mean average daily (i.e. coldest day overall) temperature values. However, as impressive as those specific daily extremes are, the longevity of these frigid temperatures would arguably become its most historic aspect as most stations reported their top-10 coldest 2-day, 3-day, 4-day, 5-day, 6-day, and even 7-day period on record during this week in January 2024!” 

Kalispell records have been kept since 1896. January’s average low temperature is 19 F. Kalispell’s all-time low temperature was recorded at negative 38 F in 1950; Western Montana’s at negative 53 F, Seeley Lake, 1957; and the state’s at negative 70 F, Rogers Pass, 1954.  During the January cold snap, Kalispell shattered its previous January 13 low-temperature record of negative 24 F (1972) with a new low of negative 33 F at 7:55 a.m.  

Around the same time the new low temperature was recorded on January 13, FEC’s system reached a peak electric demand of 441.9 megawatts (MW)! This peak destroyed the previous peak demand record of 407.7 MW set in December 2022. The new peak is 34.2 MW, or 8.4% higher than that set in December 2022. At the same time, the growth in the number of meters on the FEC system since December 2022 was only 2.7%.  

Regionally, the BPA grid also peaked on the morning of January 13 at 11,396 MW, which is a modern energy demand record since the time aluminum smelters were served by BPA. The previous post-aluminum record was set in December 2022, at 11,068 MW. 

Then, on January 15, FEC’s grid peaked at 439 MW, just under the new record of 441.9 MW. At around that same time, Kalispell set yet another record-low temperature, breaking the existing record of negative 25 F (2005) with a new low of negative 28 F. The cold continued, and Kalispell eventually recorded 109 consecutive hours (4.5 days) below zero from January 12 through January 16, the 4th longest consecutive such period on record.  

Flathead Electric Cooperative graph showing electric demand, in blue, greatly increasing as temperatures, in red, drop drastically during the January ‘24 cold snap.
Flathead Electric Cooperative graph showing electric demand, in blue, greatly increasing as temperatures, in red, drop drastically during the January ‘24 cold snap.

As Co-op staff stayed in constant contact with BPA and NWS, and made constant adjustments to the FEC grid, the power largely stayed on. Over the weeklong cold snap, the Co-op’s 58,000+ members experienced about 80 outages impacting 9,552 members. The highest number of members without power at one time was about 1,500. Most outages lasted less than 2 hours.  Through January 13, most outages were caused by wind and weather. After January 13, most outages were caused by the grid’s protective measures kicking in to protect transformers and fuses from becoming overloaded.  

“I consider these outage numbers a success,” shares Jason Williams, Assistant General Manager—Engineering, Operations, and Power. “After the December 2022 cold snap, our engineering and operations departments spent 13 months improving our local grid in specific response to what we learned. We upgraded equipment, added system redundancy to allow members to be fed power from multiple substations, and hired contract crews to assist with our tree-trimming efforts. We saw the results of that work during the recent cold temperatures.” 

In addition to these grid-hardening efforts, Co-op staff prepared for the predicted cold snap in many ways. Engineers ran complicated calculations to balance loads. Operations crews deployed a backup, portable substation.  Communications staff sent text messages and emails to every member with contact information on file, warning them of the coming dangerously cold temperatures and encouraging them to prepare their homes and businesses accordingly. Others coordinated shelter preparations with local agencies. Crews of linemen, tree trimmers, and support staff remained on call 24/7 during the frigid week and worked through wretched conditions to quickly resolve small outages as they occurred. 

As spring arrives, the Co-op continues to analyze the local grid and to improve it. Staff are actively working with BPA to increase transmission, or how much power can be delivered, into the Flathead Valley. “We have enough power right now,” Co-op General Manager Mark Johnson stresses. “However, this event represented an incredible educational opportunity – we learned a lot about what our local and regional grids can handle. Industry experts agree that we came too close to the edge of catastrophe during that learning experience. The big takeaway for us is that an area growing as quickly as ours must constantly prepare for the future. Everyone at Flathead Electric takes that job extremely seriously.” 

Johnson continues, “Our area is completely dependent on hydropower – and not just the power generated by the Hungry Horse and Libby dams. Particularly in low-flow winter months, our local dams do not supply nearly enough to meet our demands. Luckily, Western Montana is tied into the Pacific Northwest via BPA’s power lines, transmission towers, and the hydroelectric dams that make up the Federal Columbia River Power System. During the cold snap, that system’s hydro made up more than 70% of our entire region’s power supply.” 

The Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) supplied more than 10,000 MWs of baseload, carbon-free electricity to keep electricity flowing in the Pacific Northwest during the cold snap. The FCRPS’s lower Snake River dams, which reliably generate electricity when river flows are traditionally very low in the deep winter months, ramped up to meet the huge morning and evening peak demands of the deep freeze by producing 1,000+ MWs of electricity. BPA noted that this was accomplished by “reducing generation late at night into the early morning hours to less than 200 MWs and ramping to over 1,100 MWs during peak daytime hours.”  

In addition to hydro generation, the PNW’s electricity needs were served by its sole nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station (CGS), which is also part of BPA. The CGS produced 1,165 MW of emission-free electricity during the cold snap.  

Other PNW energy issues stemming from natural gas and wind were highlighted by the extreme stress the cold snap placed on the regional grid. Wind’s inconsistency in the area remains troubling. Wind is an intermittent, or variable energy resource (VER), as opposed to a baseload, or not intermittent, generation resource like hydro or nuclear. Wind generation brought 1,000 MW to the BPA grid on January 13 but then largely died off for the remainder of the cold snap. Unfortunately, utility-scale batteries to capture wind energy and dispatch it later, when needed, are not widespread in the region and can only provide a short-term (four-hour) supply of energy – which would not come close to sustaining the PNW through a several-day extreme weather scenario. 

(Top Half of Chart) Red line represents total BPA electric load. Blue line represents electricity generated by hydropower in response to demand during the extended deep freeze during the week of January 13. (Bottom Half of Chart) Green line represents wind generation. Purple line represents electricity generated by nuclear power. Brown line represents fossil fuel and biomass generation, which our region has little of. Grey line along the bottom of the chart represents solar generation.

Also troubling during the PNW cold snap were the supply issues natural gas-fired power plants experienced due to equipment failures at a major natural gas storage facility in Washington. As a result, Puget Sound Energy customers were asked to stop heating their homes to conserve natural gas. Had the portion of the PNW grid powered by natural gas gone down during the cold snap, the increased demand on hydro and nuclear to provide electricity would have been even greater.  

“All generation matters in the age of electrification, baseload and intermittent alike,” reflects Tia Robbin, FEC Assistant General Manager—Administrative Services. “However, we are incredibly lucky in Northwest Montana to be served largely by carbon-free baseload generation like hydro and nuclear. Hydro is like a giant battery providing us with reliable, affordable power when we need it most. Such as when the wind chill is –70F near Essex!” 

Returning to the data gleaned from the January ‘24 cold snap establishing a new electric demand peak 8.4% higher than that set in December 2022, while meter growth increased by only 2.7%, it is evident that the demand for electricity is increasing, and will continue to increase, in cold times and in all times. The Co-op continues its work to harden the local grid, and to work with regional policymakers and partners, including BPA, to strengthen the regional grid, too. Johnson concluded, “It’s Flathead Electric Cooperative’s mission to deliver affordable, reliable power to our members. We will never stop researching, advocating, and acting on their behalf.” 


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Courtney Stone

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