PSE and Other Utilities Request All Customers Reduce Usage to Prevent Widespread Gas and Electricity Shutoffs
A series of critical issues with natural gas infrastructure and electricity generation across the Pacific Northwest this weekend have prompted utilities to request significant consumer conservation efforts to avoid potentially widespread system failures or directed outages during an extended period of well-below-average temperatures.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which provides electricity and natural gas to over 1.5 million customers throughout multiple counties in Western Washington, has issued an urgent appeal for all users to immediately reduce natural gas use and electricity consumption for at least the next 48 hours during the coldest temperatures of the year so far.
PSE and other regional utility providers have reported reduced capacity to deliver adequate natural gas supply to power plants and end users due to extremely high demand during cold weather this week. A significant outage at a key storage and transmission facility in Washington state on Saturday has severely impacted inventory and flows. Without substantial cutbacks in usage over the next few days, utilities may be forced to shut off gas services to certain neighborhoods or regions at a time on a rotating basis.
Natural Gas Storage Facility Outage Threatens Supply Chain
A major natural gas storage facility operated by Jackson Prairie in Washington went offline unexpectedly Saturday morning due to a suspected equipment failure. With temperatures forecast to range from the single digits to teens across Western Washington and wind chills below zero degrees through at least Monday, the loss of this vital regional supply node could not have happened at a worse time.
The Jackson Prairie underground storage cavern holds 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas supply that utilities rely on to meet heightened winter demand. Gas is injected in the summer when prices are lower and withdrawn during cold months when market prices typically spike due to use for heating buildings and electric generation. The facility can deliver up to 1.5 billion cubic feet per day directly into pipelines serving homes and power plants throughout the Northwest.
Without this crucial inventory buffer, natural gas transmission lines are already operating at full capacity attempting to pull supply from other areas of North America. But the cold weather stretches across much of the country, putting pressure on supplies and infrastructure from the central U.S. and Canada as well. Analysts expect the wholesale price of natural gas delivered into the Pacific Northwest hubs this week to reach highs not seen since the winter of 2021-22.
Call For Short Term Conservation To Keep Heat and Lights On
With gasoline prices still hovering near record levels, the last thing most families and businesses want to give up is heat and electricity. But PSE officials say they have no choice except to mandate substantial usage reductions for all customers if they want to maintain adequate supply and system pressures.
During a press conference Sunday morning, the utility emphasized cooperation and short term cutbacks from users across Western Washington as the only possibility to make it through the next few days without more significant involuntary outages. They have already enacted temporary adjustments to large commercial user agreements that allow reduced delivery levels in emergency situations.
Unfortunately, those efforts have not closed the gap as temperatures plunged overnight Saturday. The utility estimates overall natural gas usage per customer ticked up nearly 50 percent compared to seasonally normal despite public requests early in the week to conserve.
Now PSE is asking all users – residential, business, and industrial – to immediately turn thermostats down to at least 65 degrees day and night and avoid using natural gas appliances. A failure in efforts to curb demand could lead to shutting off gas to entire cities or counties for periods of 2 to 4 hours. As a provider of last resort, the potential shutdowns would likely target less densely populated areas but could initially rotate between regions.
Electric Grid Also Feeling the Strain As Blackouts Possible with More Failures
Complicating the natural gas situation is the interdependence with electricity generated by burning gas. Nearly two-thirds of power in the Northwest comes from natural-gas fired plants. With the squeeze in fuel supply, utilities have already slowed output at many locations which is putting a strain on transmission capacity.
Wholesale electricity prices have doubled over the weekend across Mid-Columbia and other Northwest trading hubs. Puget Sound Energy reported several temporary generation failures which caused automated load reduction events impacting over 260,000 households for short periods early Sunday morning. If additional power plants are forced offline for lack of natural gas, the potential would exist for involuntary regional blackouts requiring manual demand response similar to Texas in 2021.
Unlike Texas, experts applaud Northern tier utilities for their coordinated efforts to share information and resources along with requesting early conservation from customers. While rotating outages impacting residents is not guaranteed in this situation, PSE admits the possibility exists if demand stays high and natural gas or electricity generation suffers additional setbacks this week. Officials continue to stress that individual actions around thermostat setbacks, turning off unnecessary lights and appliances, and avoiding use of furnaces, fireplaces, stoves, and laundry equipment would still make the biggest difference in avoiding more significant service failures.
Puget Sound Region Natural Gas Production, Storage, and Delivery
|Production or Storage Capacity
Jackson Prairie Storage | NW Natural | 8 Bcf | Offline due to equipment failure |
Mist Natural Gas Storage | NW Natural | 5 Bcf | Approaching max withdrawal deliverability given demand |
Plymouth LNG Plant | PSE | 1.5 Bcf/yr liquefaction | Running at peak rates |
Timeline of Recent Northwest Energy Supply Issues
- Monday 1/9 – PSE requests customers begin conserving natural gas usage as colder temperatures expected by weeks end
- Thursday 1/12 – Wholesale electricity and natural gas prices begin rapid rise across Western hubs due to weather forecasts
- Friday 1/13 – Cascade Natural Gas joins conservation request as models show potential demand exceeding deliverability next week
- Saturday 1/14 – Jackson Prairie natural gas storage facility suffers significant outage; PSE warns of likely gas shutoffs soon without lower use
- Sunday 1/15 – PSE calls for emergency conservation efforts from all customers to avoid region-wide natural gas and electric outages
- Monday 1/16 – Current temperatures forecast to remain very cold with additional power plants at risk of failure which could trigger rolling blackouts
Outlook and Next Steps
Puget Sound Energy continues to monitor the situation and will provide ongoing updates around natural gas or electricity emergency actions. They expect the heightened demand which is straining inventory levels and equipment to persist for at least the next 5-7 days given the extended timeframe of well below average temperatures.
While the operator of the impacted Jackson Prairie storage facility believes they can restore partial functionality within 48 hours, the utilities continue to plan for zero supply availability from this vital regional source – meaning conservation efforts will remain essential. Any further loss of electricity generation could put the integrated grid stability at growing risk as well.
PSE says first priorities if demand continues to exceed supply would be attempting to arrange interstate natural gas supply purchases along with restarting a liquefied natural gas production plant shut down for maintenance. They may also request FERC permission to interrupt contracted delivery quantities to the largest industrial consumers first if load shedding becomes mandatory. But the utility continues to stress that residential thermostat setbacks of at least 10-15 degrees below normal along with avoidance of gas appliances and unnecessary lights and electronics remains the best way to avoid more significant issues.
Experts warn the Puget Sound grid will remain in a precarious state at least through next week given the magnitude of cold weather impacted supply and generation. Any further equipment issues could force utilities into involuntary shutoffs versus relying on voluntary conservation. But substantial consumer demand reductions in the short term can still largely prevent major end user impacts during this latest regional infrastructure emergency scenario.
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