Power grid expert gives South Carolina a ‘C’ in winter weather preparedness

Updated: Feb. 25, 2021 at 5:21 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A South Carolina power grid expert has given the state a ‘C’ in preparedness for winter weather just a week after historic cold temperatures and snow knocked out power to millions in Texas.

Dr. Johan Enslin is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clemson University’s North Charleston campus.

“It’s definitely not an A. I think we’d get a C,” Enslin said. “Our generation is primarily nuclear based, so it’s one source of generation, which is good. But, it’s one source. Most of our other sources are imported from our neighboring utilities.”

Texas operates differently though. They’re on what Enslin calls “an electrical island,” which means they can’t rely on other states when their systems fail.

Earlier this month, Texas was hit by an arctic blast which drove temperatures into a rare plunge and electrical grids buckled under the high demand.

“It doesn’t matter what generation it was - natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind- all of those resources were not available when they should’ve been,” he said. “We generate power in very cold temperatures in Alaska and in Europe. It’s not an excuse any more to say we don’t know how to do it.”

Most other states, including South Carolina, are part of an interconnected grid, meaning they can get energy quickly from other states when it’s needed.

“We are definitely in a better place of not being on an island,” Enslin said. “We may want to strengthen some of those connections with our neighboring states.”

He also recommended investing more in transmission infrastructure, undergrounding more power lines, and improving energy storage.

“The roads are getting worse, but the electrical infrastructure is in the same boat,” Enslin said. “We have much more people. We have pretty much the same generation.”

He said those improvements should be made now before winter weather takes aim at South Carolina, something Meteorologist Bill Walsh said isn’t common but can happen.

“In 2018, we had six plus inches of snow. Plus, we had multiple days below freezing,” Walsh said. “We had some big problems with the freezing temperatures overnight. So, yes it can happen, and it did. And, it certainly can happen again.”

It’s one of the reasons Gov. Henry McMaster ordered a review of the state’s power grid.

In a letter to the Office of Regulatory Staff, he wrote South Carolina is prepared for and stands ready to respond to hurricanes and other forms of severe weather.

“However, these recent events serve as a reminder that dangerous ice storms and severe winter weather can significantly affect those areas typically unaccustomed to such conditions, and when they do, they often have disastrous consequences,” he wrote.

Dominion Energy, which will be participating in that discussion with regulators and legislators, serves more than one million customers across the state.

“We are prepared for whatever weather comes our way,” Dominion Spokesperson Paul Fischer said. “If one resource is unavailable, we’re able to find an alternative safe and reliable resource for our customers. That is a huge value and the power of an interconnected grid here in South Carolina.”

He added trees and tree limbs remain the number one reason for outages across their system, and it’s why he said crews are out all year round working to safeguard their power lines.

“We’re continuing to see the frequency and duration of our outages decline, and our vegetation management program is key to that,” he said.

Once a review of the system is complete, the governor asked for a summary of their findings and any recommendations be provided to him and legislative leadership. The review’s timeline is not set in stone but could be completed as early as June.

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