Remember January's cold weather? Read on to learn more about how that affected the electric system in our region.

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 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.”

Around the same time a new low temperature was recorded on January 13, FEC’s system reached a peak electric demand of 441.9 megawatts (MW)! The new peak is 34.2 MW, or 8.4% higher than the previous high 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%. Those numbers underscore that the demand for electricity is increasing and will continue to increase.

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

Across the region, many lessons were learned from the cold snap. The inconsistency of wind and solar generation in the area remains troubling. Wind and solar are variable energy resources (VER), as opposed to baseload energy resources like hydropower 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, current 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 grid through a several-day extreme weather scenario.

Luckily, Flathead Electric Co-op’s electricity is largely generated by hydropower. 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 yellow line at the top of the chart represents total BPA electric load. The blue line (below it) represents electricity generated by hydropower in response to demand during the extended deep freeze during the week of January 13. Other resources make up much less of the total load, including nuclear (a steady, flat line) and fossil/biomass generation. Solar and wind were largely unavailable during the cold snap.

Now that warmer months are here, 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.”

To read a more detailed version of this article on the January ‘24 cold snap, view our press release from March 13, 2024.

Courtney Stone

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