Utility companies were able to handle February’s demand

Thursday, March 14, 2019

February 2019 was Glendive’s second coldest February on record, but there was nothing about it that stressed utility provider’s ability to keep up with power demands during the extended cold snap. While reports are circling that Montana’s other primary utility provider, Northwestern Energy, experienced near-record energy load demands in their service area during February’s arctic blast, utility providers in our area did not have any excessive load demands on their grids.

“It’s definitely not a record,” Montana-Dakota Utilities spokesman Mark Hanson said of the energy load demands the company saw during the cold spell. “On either the electric side of it or the natural gas side of it, we didn’t have any usage that was a record or anything like that.”

The same was true for McCone Electric Co-op, which provides electric service to most of the northern half of Dawson County outside of the immediate Glendive area.

“Our peak demand did not set a new record,” said McCone Electric general manager Michael Hoy, noting their current record for peak demand was set in December 2016.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a spike in utility service demand during the cold spell, particularly in demand for natural gas. Hanson said the average MDU household typically uses 13 decatherms of natural gas during the month of February, while for February 2019 that average usage rose to 19 decatherms.

“For the month of February, (natural gas) usage was about 45 percent more than average,” Hanson said. “For the year so far, we’re about 16 percent over normal.”

However, Hanson said while natural gas usage did increase during February, it does not appear to have translated to extremely high utility bills for MDU customers. Bills obviously did go up in February, but not astronomically so, he said.

“It probably doesn’t translate directly to bills being that much higher,” Hanson said, adding that utility costs are also significantly impacted by the temperature each customer sets their thermostat to, how energy efficient their home is and other factors.

The average MDU bill for February was up $32 over the monthly average, Hanson noted. He said a primary factor in why most MDU customers did not see a huge increase in their utility bill — and why MDU didn’t have any record energy load demands during the cold snap — is because the vast majority of home and commercial heating systems in their service area are powered by natural gas, not by more costly electricity.

MDU does have the ability, Hanson noted, to ask some of their customers — known as “interruptible customers” — to lower their natural gas usage if the demand starts to exceed the utility’s ability to deliver gas to customers on extremely cold days. However he said there was “no need” for the company to do so at any time this winter, adding that even in the most extreme winter conditions, MDU is well-situated to make sure all of its customers are getting the gas or power they need to stay warm.

“Our system and the capacity we contract for, we operate under the ability to meet the demands of those coldest days like that,” Hanson said.

McCone Electric does not provide natural gas service, only electric. Hoy noted that many of the company’s rural customers use liquid propane to fuel their home heating systems. However, because electricity is still used by those home heating systems to power the blowers, fans and other components, Hoy said his customers will see some impact.

“Members should prepare for higher bills,” Hoy said. “And even if you have (liquid propane), your furnace was running longer so you’ll have higher electric consumption on that.”

While McCone Electric does not yet have figures prepared for exactly how much, on average, they expect their customers’ bills for February to increase, Hoy did note that the company’s energy sales for February 2019 were 5 percent higher overall than February 2018, so he said customers should expect approximately the same increase in their bills over the previous year.

Like MDU, Hoy added that his company’s power supply grid handled the brutal cold and the extra energy demand it created without any major disruptions in service.

“Our system held together with two minor outages for the whole month,” Hoy said.

Reach Jason Stuart at dcedc@midrivers.com.

“For the month of February, (natural gas) usage was about 45 percent more than average. For the year so far, we’re about 16 percent over normal,”
Mark Hanson, MDU spokesperson