Megawatts in the Megastorm
TVA and Partners Meet Record Demand During Arctic Blast
Matt Brandon was getting ready for bed when he got the call.
It was the evening of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. An Arctic storm was blowing through and snow had piled up in the Appalachians, just east of Johnson City, Tennessee.
Temperatures hit single digits.
System operators at Tennessee Valley Authority received an alert about a breaker that had tripped on a transmission line. They didn’t know the extent of the problem, but knew it needed attention.
Brandon, a TVA electrical foreman, pulled on his long johns, Carhartt coveralls and a facemask and hopped into a crew truck stocked with protein bars, jerky, water, extra clothes and sleeping bags – just in case he got stranded.
TVA electrician Kenny Fields soon joined him, and they headed out to investigate.
“It was way up in the mountains,” Brandon said. “It was very cold and the roads were still bad.”
A tree had fallen, breaking off the crossarm of a power pole and pulling down a transmission line. Fortunately, the line was so remote it posed no risk to the public.
But to reroute power, Brandon and Fields had to take a circuitous path along mountain roads to a substation and both ends of the fallen line.
It was slow going. They were out until 1 a.m.
“We’re here to respond at all hours of the night,” Brandon said. “We just try to get out there as quick as we can.”
The two were among thousands of TVA team members who mobilized to keep power flowing during mid-January’s blast of severe weather.
The storm delivered 10 consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures – the longest stretch the Valley region has seen in nearly 15 years.
For teams in the field, that meant long hours and challenging conditions.
For the people in homes and businesses throughout TVA’s seven-state region, it meant a collaborative effort to trim energy consumption amid high demand.
And the gargantuan effort paid off.
TVA and its 153 local power company partners across seven states maintained reliable power throughout the storm. In the process, TVA delivered a record amount of power for any seven-day period in its history.
TVA hydro technician Brad Sands snapped this shot of Tims Ford Dam on the Elk River near Winchester, Tennessee, where he and a fellow technician worked during the storm to ensure the plant ran smoothly.
The storm was a doozy.
The mercury sat below freezing from Jan. 13-22. Ice and snow made for treacherous travel.
“It’s been quite a ride with this Arctic air,” Patrick Walshe, TVA manager of resource operations and analysis, said. “Temperatures got as low as minus 1 in Nashville. And we had as low as 10 below, or lower, in rural areas where the snow cover was particularly heavy.”
It drove record-setting demand for energy.
Preliminary figures show TVA hit an all-time high in peak demand of 34,524 megawatts at 8 a.m. CT, Jan. 17. Precisely four days later, the enterprise notched its second-highest usage peak: 34,284 megawatts.
Four of the top seven highest-energy use days in TVA history occurred during the storm, Walshe said.
From Jan. 15-21, TVA delivered 3.4% more power than its previous record-setting week in January 2010.
“We made a lot of plans to ensure that we delivered reliable power to keep everybody safe and warm across the Valley,” Walshe said. “We did just that through a lot of planning and preparing and a lot of investment in our infrastructure.”
Patrick Walshe, manager of resource operations and analysis, at TVA’s central grid operations center in Chattanooga.
Every Megawatt Counts
This past year, TVA hardened its system to prepare for severe winter weather.
TVA recently invested $123 million in the effort, including thousands of upgrades to protect outdoor equipment from freezing.
Team members strengthened winterization protocols. They implemented training and rehearsed drills. They developed communication playbooks and shared plans with local power companies and other partners.
When the storm hit, everyone had a role to play.
On the storm’s eve, hydro technician Brad Sands was dispatched to Tims Ford Dam, on the Elk River near Winchester, Tennessee.
Bring plenty of food, he was told.
Sands, who usually works at the much larger Chickamauga and Nickajack dams, arrived just before the snow began to accumulate.
It reached depths of 10 inches. The temperature dropped to minus 11.
He wound up staying at the plant from late Jan. 14 to midafternoon Jan. 18.
He and fellow hydro technician Curt Porter camped out in the control room, closely monitoring the delicate balance of pressure in the governor oil pump and levels in the sump and accumulator tank.
Tims Ford is a small dam, with just one turbine generating 36 megawatts.
But every megawatt mattered during the storm, Sands said. Smooth operation was critical.
“That’s the difference in keeping the lights on,” he said.
At Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, Sands points out components critical for safe and reliable dam operation.
Pizzas and Pot Roast
Storm preparations at larger plants were extensive.
Workers readied salt and ice melt, auxiliary heaters, extension cords, boot spikes and gloves.
Inventory storerooms and distribution centers were stocked. TVA supply chain team members contacted vendors to ensure they could procure critical supplies on short notice.
Plant staff brought ice cleats home so they’d be safe from the moment they stepped out of their vehicles.
Staffing was beefed up around the clock. Cots and air mattresses were available if crews needed to stay.
Leaders and team members arranged for food – everything from MREs to pizza deliveries to Hardee’s takeout to homemade pot roast sandwiches.
At Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, they opted for a hamburger and hotdog barbecue in subfreezing temperatures.
Five heat trace crews were stationed around the Valley to monitor the warming equipment TVA recently upgraded to protect pipes and outdoor instruments.
Norm Flake, TVA’s senior program manager of seasonal readiness, joined a team at the emergency command post in Chattanooga.
Their mission? Serve as a lifeline to all the generating plants.
Flake kept critical questions front and center: “What are your needs? What do you need us to do? And how can we support you through this event?”
Norm Flake, senior program manager of seasonal readiness, focuses on winter preparedness across all of TVA’s gas, coal, nuclear and hydroelectric plants.
At the Caledonia Combined Cycle Plant near Steens, Mississippi, crews kept watch on transmitters that monitor the water level in drums where steam is generated for turbines.
The transmitters needed to stay warm to operate properly.
Every few hours, in below-zero wind chill, BJ Gough and his teammates had to climb three 110-foot outdoor staircases to check on the transmitters. They worked in pairs for safety.
They brought drop lights, kerosene heaters and tarps to build windbreaks.
“Anything to keep the heat on those transmitters,” Gough, a combined cycle lead technician, said.
At the Cumberland Fossil Plant in Stewart County, Tennessee, maintenance supervisor Jessica Walker and her crew deployed a fleet of 80 electric and gas heaters to help warm equipment.
“We had eyes and hands on everything so nothing bad happened,” Walker said.
The vigilance paid off there, and at Caledonia.
“All three units stayed online for the whole time,” Gough said. “It took a lot of teamwork to make that happen. That’s what all that work and planning went into – making those units ready to run in these kinds of conditions.”
That teamwork includes TVA’s 10,000 employees, he said, but it also extends to the public for answering the call to conserve energy.
“The public worked with us, and we executed a really good plan,” Gough said. “It’s everybody working together to make what happened happen.”
Even a small dam like Tims Ford played an important role in TVA delivering reliable power during the storm, Sands said.
PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: TVA business support representative Beth Ann Forsgren captured this image of the Clinch River and Kingston Fossil Plant on the coldest night of the storm.