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The Polar Vortex: Big Test for Virginia’s Energy Infrastructure

Another Polar Vortex is descending upon the United States, and it’s expected to bring record cold to the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. The news media will be full of human-interest stories about new temperature records, homeless people freezing, and disruptions to daily life and business. But the real action will be how the energy industry — electric utilities, natural gas pipelines, home oil deliveries — hold up under the strain. If the system holds together, the harm to human health will be limited. If pieces of the system fail, hundreds or thousands of people could die from the cold.

Judging from the map above, based on the forecast of a European weather model that’s now a few days old, Virginia will be on the edge of the vortex. But we’re part of the PJM Interconnection system, whose territory will be smack dab in the middle of the weather system. Also, bitter cold will strain the capacity of natural gas pipelines to deliver gas used for home heating.

As legislators ponder Virginia’s energy future, debating the proper mix of solar, wind, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electric transmission capacity, this is exactly the kind of extreme-weather event we need to prepare for. We can build an electric grid and gas-pipeline system that can perform beautifully 360 days of the year, but if it isn’t robust enough to handle a polar vortex, hurricane or other infrequent but recurring stressor, the result could be catastrophic.

Some bell weathers to watch:

Hopefully, Virginia will sail through this event with minimal trauma. But all parties involved — legislators, regulators, utilities, the general public, news media — should be paying close attention to how our energy infrastructure holds up under the strain. The knowledge we gain will inform our push into an energy future dominated by solar and wind.