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Freezing temperatures push Tampa Bay power demand to record

Normally, hats are banned in class at Ridgewood High School. So are cell phones.

But after record-breaking cold meant no power at school Monday morning, the Pasco students were allowed to don hats and hoods. They even got the okay to fire up cell phones — to use as lights so they could see their schoolwork.

The lesson for Florida was simple as local utilities reported their highest-ever demand: We're ill-equipped for days of freezing temperatures.

Progress Energy Florida issued a public plea just after 5:30 a.m. — amid hot showers, lights flipping on and heaters revving up — asking customers to avoid, say, starting a load of laundry.

The rare request — the company's first in 21 years — shielded customers from rolling blackouts as the entire state got close enough to its electrical capacity to trigger the advisory.

Capacity is important because electricity generally can't be stored. It must be made when it's needed.

Morning demand that hit more than 52,000 megawatts in an hour pushed Florida within about 2,000 megawatts of its required reserve, said Sarah Rogers, president of the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council, which helps utilities manage peak times.

The state's last peak demand record was set in summer 2007. It hit new records on Thursday, Sunday and Monday morning. The 52,000 megawatts is 11 percent higher than the 2007 record.

Two factors conspired to push demand to the brink of blackouts: the length of the chill, and the way we heat our buildings.

Most people are willing to tough out a few cold days, Rogers said. But as the discomfort stretches on, they break down — and turn up the heat.

Meanwhile, electric heat pumps we rely on in Florida work with great efficiency. Until it freezes. Then backup heating kicks in, so-called "strip" or "resistance" heat that draws far more power. When temperatures at last drive us to touch the thermostat, that's when systems work worst.

Power companies' goal is enough power generation for peak demand. Other times, they can sell the excess.

Tampa Electric, which has more than 660,000 customers in Hillsborough County and parts of Polk, Pinellas and Pasco, invested $180 million to install five natural gas "peaking" units last year, said spokesman Rick Morera. They're designed to kick in quickly when demand hits.

Progress Energy Florida, which serves more than 1.6 million customers, including in the bay area and Central Florida, spent $800 million to change its Bartow power plant from fuel oil to natural gas. That more than doubled the plant's capacity when it reopened last summer, according to spokeswoman Suzanne Grant.

Progress has been hampered by maintenance delays at its Crystal River nuclear plant, where it's repairing a cracked containment wall. Progress also plans a new nuclear plant in Levy County that won't open until after 2017.

When demand spiked Monday, Tampa Electric, which had all its plants going and purchased power to round out supply, didn't have to interrupt service to any customers. Progress, which also ran all available plants and bought additional energy, issued its conservation plea. It didn't cut power to any standard-rate customers. But it rotated power among customers who get discounts in exchange for loss of power at peak times.

Those "interruptible rate" customers, mostly big industrial users with backup generators, also include Eckerd College and some school districts.

That's how Ridgewood High students in Pasco County came to learn in dim, cold classrooms Monday. The Pasco County School District last year saved more than $360,000 through its long-standing arrangement with Progress Energy, which warned the district Sunday of possible blackouts.

The possibility prompted Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino to send a phone message Sunday to all employees and parents telling them to dress warmly for school. At least 11 Pasco schools had no heat or lights for almost four hours Monday morning, the first day back from winter break.

Most students toughed it out, but several got their parents to sign them out, saying it was too cold to stick around.

In Hernando County, three schools in Brooksville with a discount rate from Progress Energy didn't have enough energy to run heat until midmorning, interim superintendent Sonya Jackson said.

Progress Energy asked Eckerd College to shut off its electricity from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. The college was warned Sunday night there was 50 percent chance it wouldn't have power under the agreement that's been in place for more than 10 years, said Alizza Punzalan-Hall, Eckerd's director of community and media relations.

They were told there was a 60 percent chance it would happen again this morning.

Times staff writers Emily Nipps, Kim Wilmath, Andy Boyle, Marlene Sokol and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

January's brisk new normal

Jan. 1 Jan. 2 Jan. 3 Jan. 4 Jan. 5 Jan. 6* Jan. 7 Jan. 8 Jan. 9 Jan. 10 Jan. 11*
High 67 58 46 53 52 51 57 57 42 43 51
Low 48 40 37 34 36 27 36 42 29 28 25
Degrees colder than usual -4 -13 -20 -18 -18 -23 -15 -11 -25 -25 -23

*record lows Source: National Weather Service, based on temperatures at Tampa International Airport

Date, and then high, low, average degrees colder for the day than usual for Tampa

Jan. 1: 67, 48, -4

Jan. 2: 58, 40, -13 (Cold snap starts, on a Saturday)

Jan. 3: 46, 37, -20

Jan. 4: 53, 34, -18

Jan. 5: 52, 36, -18

Jan. 6: 51, 27, -23 -- record breaking, lowest was 30 in 1999

Jan. 7: 57, 36, -15 -- tied the record low maximum with 1969

Jan. 8: 57, 42, -11

Jan. 9: 42, 29, -25 -- tied the record low maximum which was set in 1970

Jan. 10: 43, 28, -25

Jan. 11: don't know high yet, low of 25 -- record breaking, previous record of 27 set in 1982

This month has been 17.5 degrees cooler than normal, as through Sunday.

Freezing temperatures push Tampa Bay power demand to record 01/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 6:00pm]
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