During the peak of the coldest winter storm in recent memory, one energy sector was able to maintain maximum operating capacity while the others failed — making it an indispensable source of power for our country…
If you have Bill Nye “The Science Guy” warning everyone in America just how dangerous a polar vortex phenomenon is, then you know the recent cold snap that wreaked havoc across much of the country was one heck of a vicious weather system.
Scientists are still trying to determine whether climate change or another cause was responsible for the freezing arctic air that was blown farther south than usual, plunging many states into record low temperatures.
But a more pressing question is whether or not polar vortexes are likely to happen more frequently.
If it’s suspected that we will be getting more of these big chills in the future, then one controversial energy source that’s been chastised in the past may be getting a new lease on life.
Here’s how nuclear power became an unlikely hero during the winter storm.
Uninterrupted Nuclear Power
The biggest challenge that sprung from the deep freeze wasn’t finding a way to avoid the snow and wind chill — it was power outages.
With a number of regions dipping into the low teens, electrical generation became a major issue with the unexpected spike in demand.
People in Texas and Louisiana even found themselves cranking up the heat when they seldom needed to in the past.
Many energy systems overwhelmed and some actually shut down completely because of the cold.
From coal stacks to diesel generators, a number of fossil fuel-based electrical sources simply grounded to a halt, as they were unable to function in such frigid temperatures.
Grid operator PJM Interconnection, one of the largest in the US, reported a record peak power consumption of 141,500 MW on January 8th — despite 20% of their generators being down (approximately 40,000 MW worth).
Over in New England, natural gas electricity generation took such a hit that regional grid administrator ISO New England had to power up little-used coal and oil plants to try and make up the energy gap.
Yet amid all the last minute scrambling for utilities, it was business as usual for nuclear energy.
In fact, as the other systems were being pounded by outages, nuclear reactors performed even better in the cold.
You see, the energy output of any thermal power plant depends on the temperature difference between the steam generated and the outside/condenser temperature (the Carnot cycle).
Therefore, extremely low temperatures actually help to increase the efficiency of nuclear plants and in turn, help offset any drop in electricity capacity normally provided by other sources.
At one point, nuclear energy actually exceeded gas 29% to 27%, as the primary supplier of electricity in New England.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) stated that the nuclear fleet in the US maintained more than 97% operating capacity from January 4 to January 6, and dropped to just under 95% on January 7. Both NEI and the World Nuclear Association said that nuclear plants were running at their highest capacities ever.
Now, it’s highly unlikely that a single weather system of this magnitude is enough to convince politicians to strike up new legislation to push for more nuclear plants in this country.
Nevertheless, the impressive performance of nuclear energy during such an ordeal is enough to make them think twice about doing away with them altogether.
Nuclear energy has proven its worth as a critical piece of our domestic energy supply during times of distress.
Should the polar vortex decide to make future visits, the nuclear industry as well as companies who provide nuclear components to the industry can potentially generate some major buzz – especially during the winter.
Investors considering a nuclear play before the next storm creeps might want to take a look at Charlotte-based Babcock & Wilcox Co. (NYSE:BWC). They’re having a phenomenal run this winter season.