How the Polar Vortex is Fueled by and a Threat to Our Energy Infrastructure

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | January 7, 2014 | Energy Efficiency, Extreme Weather, Utilities

In case you somehow missed it, the majority of the United States is experiencing record cold temperatures today. Parts of the Southeast started at or below zero this morning (not factoring in wind chill) and even Florida’s Panhandle is flirting with freezing temperatures. Some weather forecasters have joked it is warmer on Mars than it is in parts of the Midwest right now. Oslo, Norway and Orlando, Florida today shared the same high temperature (it was 46 degrees Fahrenheit in both cities).

This historic cold front is being blamed on a polar vortex – a prevailing wind pattern that circles the Arctic, flowing from west to east, which normally remains within the polar region. Experts note that warming temperatures are a cause of this ‘renegade’ polar vortex. Scientific America explains it well:

“More and more Arctic sea ice is melting during summer months. The more ice that melts, the more the Arctic Ocean warms. The ocean radiates much of that excess heat back to the atmosphere in winter, which disrupts the polar vortex. Data taken over the past decade indicates that, when a lot of Arctic sea ice disappears in the summer, the vortex has a tendency to weaken over the subsequent winter, if related atmospheric conditions prevail over the northern Atlantic Ocean.”

That’s right: Warming global temperatures have, in part, led to this extreme cold in the US. By comparison, Oslo, Norway has had something of a heatwave over the past thirty days, clocking in temperatures that are, on average, 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.

The bitter cold isn’t just impacting schools and airports, as temperatures across the nation hover at historic lows, utilities around the country are struggling to keep up with the heightened electric demand. As temperatures plummet, homes and buildings that rely on electric heat naturally require additional heating power. A similar phenomenon happens during the hot summertime afternoons when the additional electric demand is driven by straining air conditioners. Utilities, including Duke Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority here in the Southeast, are asking customers to voluntarily conserve electricity over the next 24 hours to ensure adequate power and lessen the likelihood that service will be interrupted in affected areas. Already utilities are considering rolling blackouts – a dangerous situation where utilities turn off power to whole sections of their grid. South Carolina Electric & Gas already had to use rolling blackouts this morning to prevent complete grid failure. If customers don’t comply, more utilities may consider utilizing this strategy themselves.

This polar vortex is a real-time example of climate change stressing our natural environment, while subsequently stressing the underpinning infrastructure of our society. As in years past, some power plants are already failing because of the extremely low temperatures. In Texas, a nuclear reactor’s output was decreased because of the cold weather. Natural gas supplies were interrupted at some power plants in the Mid-Atlantic. Ports for coal shipments in the Great Lakes have already been hit with ice.

And in years past, renewable energy was able to step in and help make up for these power plant failures. Wind farms helped fill the void when coal, gas or nuclear power plants fail. This year, it may be demand response and energy conservation that save the utilities. Renewable energy and energy efficiency and conservation can not only help alleviate our infrastructure problems, but they can also help reduce the carbon pollution that ultimately ends up causing some of those same problems to our infrastructure, like the Polar Vortex.

Update, January 10th: As we finally thaw from this bone-chilling weather, take two minutes to watch a video that explains the polar vortex and climate change relationship, recently put out by the White House:

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