This story originally appeared in Yale Climate Connections and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.
While millions of Americans hunker down, work from home, and try to stay busy and entertained amid a pandemic, much of our infrastructure hums along as normal, unseen and unappreciated. The electric grid is one such behemoth, supplying a steady stream of electrons, on demand for every need and whim, all day and all night.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around something as large and complex as a nationwide energy supply, but a tool from the Energy Information Administration makes it both possible and downright fascinating.
The dryly named Hourly Electric Grid Monitor is a looking glass onto the nation’s electricity network in real time. Poking through the dashboard-like display is mesmerizing, prompting deep exploration – an ideal thing to do when one’s time and curiosity may both be running a surplus.
Under Montana’s statewide stay-at-home orders, I spent a slightly voyeuristic afternoon examining how each region of the U.S. is balancing its electricity needs. There are encouraging examples where renewable energy is deeply offsetting fossil fuels, and the EIA grid monitor makes it clear where more progress is needed. But the most delightful finding was the way energy use visibly sags on weekends and the realization that the grid is simply an expression of our cumulative behaviors.
Here are 10 snapshots from around the grid. Each one sheds light on the ways we use energy around the country, throughout the day, and across the seasons.Electricity demand peaks twice each day
The alarm clock sounds. Coffee brews while cell phones and laptops chirp to life. Lights are switched on; and then the weather and morning news. The day sets into motion. As the familiar ritual is repeated by millions of people, a distinct wave ripples across the electricity grid. The morning peak in energy demand has arrived.
From about mid-fall through late spring, the daily appetite for electricity peaks twice each day. The dinner-time hours spur a second surge in energy use, and then the demand for energy drifts down to a night-time lull.
This pattern can be seen in all but the southernmost parts of the country right now. In warm weather, peak electrical demand occurs during mid-afternoon heat.We use less electricity on weekends
On a Saturday morning, electricity use rises gradually, just as people do. Weekend patterns of electricity use are spread out over a flatter, smaller peak, and energy demand is muted because offices are closed and manufacturing ramps down.
The contrasting shapes of the curves on a Saturday morning and a Monday morning reflect the collective actions – or inactions – of millions of people.Coronavirus restrictions are becoming visible in electricity use patterns
A reasonable hypothesis is that closures of schools and workplaces would cause electricity consumption to look more like weekend patterns. So far, that does not appear to be the case. As of March 27, the typical contrast between weekends and weekdays persists, even in the regions like California and New York where people’s activities are most restricted. The example below, from Seattle, shows weekend demand remains smaller.
However, a detailed look at time-of-day electricity use by the Energy Information Administration shows lower overall demand and more gradual rise in morning energy consumption; and New York is reporting a 6% to 9% reduction in electricity usage as of late March. So, the effects of virus restrictions are starting to appear but are hard to pick up without close scrutiny.*Texas shows the interplay of wind and natural gas
The EIA grid monitor shows the sources of electricity operating at any given time, revealing the intricate dance between renewables and fossil fuels. In Texas, for example, wind and natural gas provide most of the electricity, and the relationship between those two resources is intriguing. On days when the wind is strong, Texas’s 28 gigawatts of wind generating capacity can harness the resource, and the use of natural gas is correspondingly low. On March 7-8, for example, wind supplied the vast majority of electricity in Texas.
When the wind subsides, natural gas fills in the gap, as seen on March 10. On March 11 and 12, the outputs of wind and natural gas are perfectly out of phase, with gas scaling up and down to complement wind. All told, wind supplies 17.6% of electricity use in Texas, and the state is the nation’s leader in wind energy generation.California leads the way with solar
California has installed 27 gigawatts of capacity of utility-scale solar energy. That generates most of Golden State’s electricity from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM this time of year. As with Texas, the downtime of renewable energy is filled in by natural gas.
In July, the solar energy peak is longer and more powerful than it is in March, and natural gas fires up briefly to get Californians through the evening peak in energy use.
But in the winter, solar energy generates fewer watt-hours and lasts only for eight hours. Solar generation puts a dent into the daily energy supply, but the overall portfolio is sustained by natural gas.
California generates 20% of its electricity from solar, and it’s the country’s leading generator of solar energy.
These detailed views of Texas and California illustrate why improving storage of renewable energy is essential if we are to keep reducing fossil fuel use.The northwestern region uses its rivers
An abundance of hydroelectricity is evident in the northwestern region’s grid. The twice-daily spikes in demand are matched by outflow from dams, while coal, gas, and wind serve as supplements. At peak generation, 15% to 30% of electricity generated in this region is exported to California.Nuclear power operates at a steady pace
In contrast to the peaks and valleys of other types of generation, nuclear energy is a flat line on the graphs. Nuclear power plants can’t change output quickly, so they chug along at a steady equilibrium, leaving it up to other types of energy to respond to fluctuations in demand.Energy flows into and out of regions to maintain balance on the grid
‘Interchange’ shows electricity moving among different utilities and regions. In this snapshot, the Midwest region is exporting electricity to Tennessee, while importing electricity from Canada and three other regions. The ability to import and export electricity is a key part of the renewable energy puzzle, as energy can be distributed to help match production in one area with demand in another.Use the Grid Monitor to explore energy around the U.S.
The tool can be used to look at the whole country, various regions, or specific utilities (called ‘balancing authorities’ on the tool). Data is available in real time or for any time in the recent past, and specific dates can be queried. To view graphs similar to the ones in this article, click on a region and then scroll down through the various displays. Most of the displays can be customized, allowing you to investigate all sorts of energy questions.
In this time of personal and national introspection, it seems somehow fitting to use a small part of your daily electricity supply to examine the inner workings of the nation’s infrastructure. It can help the public and policymakers appreciate the pulses of current that power our lives and maybe even come up with some suggestions for improving the flow.
*Editor’s note: This paragraph was added to the original post on April 7 when EIA publicly provided additional information about this site.
The Department of Environmental Protection raised several concerns related to the license transfer of TMI's damaged Unit 2, including that "there are vast areas in the plant with unknown radiological conditions."
Hundreds of construction workers will be returning to work on Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, after state officials told the company that parts of the construction project don’t need a waiver to stay open.
But the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development recently told the company it didn’t need a waiver to continue work on a natural gas power plant the company is building, which will provide electricity to the rest of the chemical plant.
“An exemption is not required for such activity insofar as it directly supports electrical power generation, transmission and distribution,” said Rachel Wrigley, a DCED spokeswoman, in an email.
Wrigley said state agencies “will of course be closely monitoring Shell’s activities to ensure that they do not exceed the limited operations described in their exemption request.”
Michael Marr, a Shell spokesman, said that the company has had a limited workforce to “repair, preserve, and maintain” the site during the construction shutdown.
“In the weeks ahead, we anticipate reintroducing more workers to the site, at a measured pace so we can integrate limited personnel onsite while maintaining social distancing guidelines,” Marr said in an email. Marr said he anticipated there would be about 500 workers onsite next week.
The company said it’s eliminating shuttle buses from satellite parking lots for workers to encourage social distancing. Instead, workers will be allowed to drive directly onto the site.
In addition, workers will have temperature screenings before coming onto the site, and observe social distancing procedures in common areas, Marr said.
Beaver County has 158 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 14 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.
Pennsylvania’s nuclear operators said they are taking extra steps to safeguard the health of workers involved in springtime shutdowns for refueling, following the positive testing of two workers for COVID-19 at Exelon’s Limerick plant in Montgomery County.
The cases of the two workers – who Exelon said Monday were resting at home – raised concerns that the hundreds of contractors who are needed to refuel the plants every 18-24 months would be unable to effectively practice social distancing, and would end up infecting each other and the wider community.
Unit 1 at Limerick completed its outage on Monday morning after 16 days, said David Marcheskie, a spokesman for Exelon, which also owns two nuclear units at Peach Bottom in York County and the now-closed Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg. The Limerick unit is the only Pennsylvania Exelon plant that was refueled this spring, Marcheskie said.
Responding to concerns that the workers, some of whom were from out of state, could spread COVID-19 after leaving the refueling operation, Marcheskie said the company can’t prevent them leaving the area.
“Exelon can’t force contract workers to remain in the area after the outage against their will. We just don’t have that authority,” he said in a statement. “These workers also are considered essential by the U.S. government and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, just like first responders, health care workers, and grocery store employees. These specialized workers perform tasks that are vital to the nation’s power grid and they must be released to perform similar work at other plants.”
In 2018, Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants produced 39 percent of the state’s electricity, compared with 36 percent for natural gas and about 21 percent for coal, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The nuclear plants produce more than 90 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity.
At the Beaver Valley nuclear plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, unit 2 was taken out of service at 12:01 a.m. on April 12 for the replacement of about a third of its 157 fuel assemblies, said Jason Copsey, a spokesman for the plant’s owner, Energy Harbor.
He said on Tuesday that no workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the company was requiring crews to practice social distancing except where it is not practical for a specific task, in which case protective clothing is issued.
Medical staff take workers’ temperatures and check for other signs of the virus during every shift, and the company has reduced work activities and required resources by about 30 percent compared with a regular outage, Copsey said.
“Energy Harbor has developed a comprehensive response plan and implemented measures to ensure the health and safety of our employees, contractors and communities,” he said. He declined to say how many workers were involved or how long the outage would last.
The only other nuclear plant being refueled this spring is one of two units at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, which is run by Talen Energy in Luzerne County and began its outage on March 28. Taryne Williams, a spokesperson, said the company is working to prevent any outbreak of COVID-19 by conducting daily health screenings of workers before they enter the site; increased cleaning and sanitation; employment of health professionals on site; and a requirement for social distancing.
Williams said the outage is being conducted after talks with stakeholders including the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and county emergency management agencies.
“Given the nature of our business, the company maintains robust plans and contingencies to ensure we are prepared to operate safely and reliably when faced with challenges including a public health crisis,” Williams said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health has the authority to require operators to take all appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during refueling, said Nate Wardle, a spokesman. But he declined to say whether the department had required energy companies to take specific health measures during the current outages, or whether it was satisfied that they were doing so.
“The state would be responsible for ensuring health and safety from a community point of view, although private companies should be taking steps to protect their employees,” Wardle said. “The department has the ability to oversee the health and wellbeing of all Pennsylvanians. If we feel that that is not occurring, we can either work with a facility to ensure they are heeding safe practices, send a letter of enforcement requiring them to heed safe practices, or take other steps, as needed.”
At the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, officials require operators to comply with health and safety standards but only as they pertain to radiological matters, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.
“The NRC’s standards protect public health and safety from radiological consequences, and that sets a boundary on our authority,” Sheehan said. “The agency would have no basis to stop or prevent an outage if that work conflicts with an order issued by a state and/or a locality in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
He said the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration covers worker safety in relation to COVID-19. That agency did not respond to requests for comment.
“When it comes to COVID-19, we are obviously paying close attention to the way it is impacting safe plant operation, but OSHA requirements for the protection of worker health would be applicable when it comes to addressing protection from COVID-19,” Sheehan said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to a settlement with natural gas driller Range Resources over air pollution violations at two of the company’s well pads.
The violations stem from operations at well pads in Washington County. The sites had reported emissions from 2013 to 2015 of over 50 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which qualified them as “major sources” of air pollution, even though they didn’t have major source air permits.
The company later installed pollution controls on its storage tanks and other equipment at the sites, which lowered its emissions under the 50-ton threshold, according to a DEP release. The DEP said the company violated regulations when it installed those controls, because it failed to acquire the appropriate permits to install the new equipment.
The DEP said no other well pads owned by the company had the same type of problems.
Range agreed to pay nearly $200,000 in fines. The DEP said the two Washington County communities where the violations took place — Cross Creek and Mount Pleasant townships — can apply to use part of that fine toward local parks and pollution reduction efforts.
With the dramatic reduction in car traffic and commercial flights, carbon emissions have been falling around the globe. If the slowdown continues, some are estimating the world could see the largest drop in emissions in the last century.
Still, overall greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are still going up and the decline will likely be smaller than what scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
So far, the effects are just starting to appear. In China, the first country to lock down, greenhouse gas emissions dropped an estimated 25% in February as factories and industrial producers slowed output. That decreased coal burning, which has come back slowly since then.
“A month or two of shelter in place will drop carbon dioxide emissions a few percent here or there, but it won’t change the year substantially unless we stay like this for some time,” says Rob Jackson, environmental scientist at Stanford University.
The declines are still too small to be read by greenhouse gas observatories around the world, like the one on top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, given the natural changes in atmosphere this time of year. Because much of the Earth’s land mass is in the northern hemisphere, plants and forests there cause carbon levels to fluctuate as they bloom in the spring, drawing carbon dioxide from the air.
If countries continue shelter-at-home orders, emissions declines could be greater. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates U.S. emissions from gas and energy use could drop more than 7% this year, similar to a 2009 decline during the financial crisis.
Phragmites have invaded wetlands and pushed out native plants, but some say the hated reed could help in the battle against climate change.
Courtesy of the Appalachian Region Independent Power Producers Association
The EPA is relaxing air pollution regulations for a small number of plants that burn waste coal for electricity.
The rule change applies to three small power plants in Western Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia.
The EPA says it will create a new category for the plants with relaxed regulations under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS)— an Obama-era rule designed to reduce harmful air pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The plants make electricity by burning waste coal — typically left over from decades-old abandoned mining operations. Those coal piles pose a large water quality problem because they leach acid and other pollution into rivers and streams.
EPA Secretary Andrew Wheeler said in a statement the rule change would benefit the economy while helping with the effort to clean up abandoned coal sites.
“EPA has put in place achievable emissions standards that will save hundreds of jobs and preserve coal-refuse recycling operations that have become an important part of local environmental goals,” Wheeler said.
The plants in Pennsylvania are Scrubgrass Generating Company in Venango County, and Ebensburg Power and Colver Power Project, both in Cambria County. The other is Grant Town Power plant in Marion County, West Virginia.
The waste coal plants have argued for an exemption to MATS for years, saying they’d have a hard time meeting the more stringent standards.
Jaret Gibbons, executive director of the Appalachian Region Independent Power Producers Association (ARIPPA), which represents the waste coal power industry, said the plants can typically remove about 93 percent of their sulfur pollution.
But he said getting to the 98 percent required by the MATS rule wasn’t feasible because of the low quality of the fuel they use and the relatively small size of the plants, which produce a fraction of the electricity of a typical natural gas or coal-fired power plant.
“The only alternatives for compliance in most cases would have been to close the facilities and thereby lose the environmental benefit of the mine land reclamation,” Gibbons said.
ARIPPA sued the EPA over MATS when it was first implemented in 2015, but that lawsuit would be moot under the EPA’s new rules.
Environmental groups opposed the rollback, saying it would put the health of people near the plants at greater risk.
The new rules allow waste coal plants to emit higher amounts of sulfur dioxide and acid gases — linked to lung and heart problems — than allowed under the 2015 rules.
Environmental groups argued some of the plants had already been complying with the newer standards. But Gibbons said the plants had either obtained extensions to the newer standards or, in some cases, were achieving the standards by mixing in higher grade coal and lowering production. He said that “undercut” the goal of the plants, which was to clean up coal refuse piles.
Tom Schuster of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania chapter said he understood that coal refuse was a problem.
“We just don’t think that it’s always a net benefit to burn that refuse because you get air pollution problems, you get carbon dioxide, which is contributing to climate change,” Schuster said.
Environmental groups could sue to try to block the rollback, Schuster said.
“It’s just a kind of a frustrating example of how this administration is unnecessarily putting public health at risk,” he said.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and CNX have agreed to a settlement for several erosion violations at gas drilling sites in Washington and Greene counties. The company agreed to fund a $180,000 restoration of a trout stream in a Washington County park as part of the agreement.
The penalties were assessed for violations at seven of the company’s well pad sites in 2017 and 2018. On several occasions, the company failed to prevent soil erosion from its construction sites, resulting in the release of soil and sediment, and on some occasions, the release of sediment-laden water into nearby streams. On two different occasions, the company failed to notify the DEP of its erosion failures, a violation of state law.
The agreement calls for CNX to fund a 2,500-foot stream restoration of Mingo Creek in Nottingham Township. The restoration will be performed by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
The stream flows through Mingo Creek County Park, and is a high quality trout-stocked stream. The project aims to reduce sedimentation in the stream by restoring eroded banks and constructing fish habitat in the stream. It will also increase recreational fishing opportunities, according to the DEP. Designs for the restoration were completed by staff for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.
WILLIAMSPORT – A Lycoming County contractor has pleaded no contest to two charges related to the discharge of approximately 63,000 gallons of treated brine water from a natural gas well pad in 2017.
Jason Dupont, owner of Double D Construction and Excavating of Montoursville, entered the plea Tuesday to charges of pollution of waterways and a Clean Streams Act violation.
Double D was responsible for monitoring the transfer of treated brine water from a million-gallon tank to a smaller one so it could be trucked from the well pad in Eldred Township north of Warrensville in Lycoming County.
The same worker fell asleep in a truck for about 30 minutes early on Nov. 12, 2017, and for 45 minutes the following morning while a 21,000-gallon tank overflowed.
Some of the fluids went into a tributary of Loyalsock Creek.
County Judge Marc F. Lovecchio honored a plea agreement and fined Double D $7,500 with $2,500 going to the Pennsylvania Fish Fund and $5,000 to the Clean Water Fund.
The company also must make a $5,000 contribution to the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The business, which is shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has two years in which to pay the $12,500 but could seek an extension.
By pleading no contest, Dupont did not have to admit to the allegations in charges filed by the state attorney general’s office.
The co-defendant in the case, Inflection Energy, headquartered in Denver, Colo., is tentatively scheduled to plead guilty May 1.
It is accused of not reporting the first spill that was smaller than the second one.
Inflection paid a $170,500 civil penalty levied by the Department of Environmental Protection after the spill but Double D was not cited.
The charges against Double D state that it was the job of the employee, who was working a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift with no set days off, to turn off the pump when the float was within 2 feet of the top of the tank.
The worker was fired that Nov. 13 and the pump now has a hard shutoff and Inflection requires monitoring when it is operating, court documents state.
As part of a remediation effort, Inflection removed and disposed of more than 3,600 cubic yards of impacted soil, DEP said. It also monitored groundwater and private water sources.