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US utility firms spent big preparing power grid for storms – and still failed

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The warnings to residents in the south-east US came right before Christmas: delay washing clothes or running the dishwasher, and curb hot water use until the bitterly cold temperatures eased up.It still wasn’t enough for two of the nation’s largest electric utilities.As temperatures plummeted to 40F (4.4C) in a few hours and gale force winds swept across the region between 23 and 24 December, the pre-holiday preparations were put on pause as Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Duke Energy implemented historic rolling blackouts lasting about 30 minutes to an hour.By some accounts the utilities’ inability to supply power during the extreme weather almost plunged the entire eastern US into darkness.

And in some parts of the country, as much as 63% of the outages came from natural gas plants, according to the PJM Interconnection, an organization that operates the largest regional power grid in the US.The near miss came after those two utilities, among others, spent billions preparing the grid for such a storm after the 2014 polar vortex, when record cold weather exposed vulnerabilities in the power grid.

Yet, despite those investments, when the cold hit again last year, equipment at natural gas and coal-powered plants throughout the south-east still froze.Clean energy advocates and grid experts argue the December weather proved the growing number of natural gas plants, which now supply more than one-third of the nation’s electricity, are not the right choice to deal with extreme weather and are delaying a move to less climate-polluting alternatives.Despite that, Duke, Southern Company, TVA and others are looking past that argument and building more gas plants anyway. “They don’t seem to see the writing on the wall that gas

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