Hurricanes, El Niño, and Your Pennsylvania Electric Bills

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Are your Pennsylvania electricity rates hurricane ready? Learn what to expect this summer.
Even Pennsylvania’s cities and towns that are nestled in steep-sloped river valleys are not immune to hurricanes. Learn what to expect this summer and how it might affect your future electricity bills.

Are Your Pennsylvania Electricity Rates Hurricane-Ready?

This year’s hurricane season is already underway and it’s not to be taken lightly. Extreme summer weather is causing more and more disruptions to our lives. Powerful storms can force companies in the Gulf of Mexico to evacuate drilling rigs, which often send shockwaves through the oil market, spiking the price of natural gas. Storm surges can shut down coastal power plants, electric switching stations, and natural gas pipelines. Philadelphia faces a growing problem of tidal flooding that would be compounded by storm surge. Even inland cities and towns nestled in steep-sloped river valleys can be inundated by torrential rains. High winds and tornados snap power lines, plunging whole regions into the dark for days. Nightmarish storms, like Hurricane Sandy, Katrina, and Harvey, not only submerged entire metropolitan areas but impacted energy reliability and raising prices for months afterwards.

Because of the combination of growing storm intensity and high regional demands for energy, tropical cyclones now tend to cause wider-felt market disruptions. These in turn can cause energy shortages and increase Pennsylvania electric rates that may linger for months.

PA Hurricane Season 2019 Predictions

Hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30. Unlike last year’s “above normal activity forecast“, 2019 is predicted to be a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season.

 

2019 Atlantic Hurricane Predictions

NOAA
Prediction
CSU
Prediction
Weather Co.
Prediction
TSR
Prediction
Seasonal Average
1981-2010
Number of named storms
(winds 39 mph+)
9-15 13 14 12 12
Storms becoming hurricanes
(winds 74 mph+)
4-8 6 7 6 6
Major hurricanes
(Cat. 3, 4 or 5, winds 111 mph+)
2-4 2 3 2 3

 

A Certain Amount of Uncertainty

All of these forecasts come with a certain amount of…er, uncertainty. For example, NOAA’s prediction comes with a 70% probability. The remaining 30% is uncertainty due to the effects from several factors that either help or hinder tropical cyclone formation. So with that in mind, let’s quickly review the conditions that spawn hurricanes:

  • WARM sea surface temperatures (SST)in the Main Development Region (MDR) of the tropical Atlantic. The MDR spans the tropical Atlantic Ocean from west Africa to the Caribbean. The SST threshold for tropical storm formation is when temperatures get above 26.5°C (about 80°F). Not only does the sea warm the atmosphere above it, but the warm sea water also evaporates into the air. Water vapor also carries a LOT of latent heat which it releases when it condenses to form clouds. Warm, dry air coming off the coast of west Africa will also pick up more water vapor, adding to the amount of heat in the atmosphere. But if the air is too dry, it won’t pick up anything. This heat building process creates convection currents to form which pulls in more air, which evaporates more warm water, which…you get the idea. The system gathers more heat energy and builds in strength and intensity ultimately forming a hurricane.
  • CALM atmosphere.Tropical storms flourish when heated water vapor begins rising through convection into the sky without being disturbed by outside wind currents. As long as there’s calm air that allows storms systems to pull in warm SSTs at a high energy rate, tropical storms can grow into monsters. But, strong wind currents from outside this system that blow vertically across the system (wind shear) can disrupt the storm’s convection and eventually dissipate the storm.

Current Storm Spawning Conditions

Right now, SSTs readings are showing between 26°- 28°C all the way across the MDR and into the Gulf of Mexico. So far the trade winds blowing westward from Africa have been weak for the most part. Last year, these winds near Dakar were so dry and dusty, they wouldn’t even pick up water vapor (sort of like when you pour water on parched soil — it’s too dry to absorb the water). This year has been different. The west African monsoon season has been wetter. As a result, trade winds won’t be as dry nor will they pick up as much dust.  All told, this is starting to sound like good news for tropical storm formation.

But the big question hovering over the Atlantic season concerns the El Niño in the Pacific Ocean.

What El Niño?

According to NOAA, data indicates that El Niño or El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is indeed present at the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Data shows that SSTs are above average all across most of the Pacific (particularly along the Alaska coast). Now, the Pacific Ocean is a very, very big ocean. That’s a LOT of warm water at the equator that’s warming the atmosphere. There’s also a LOT of water evaporating up into the atmosphere and falling elsewhere as rain. So, it should come as no surprise that all this heat energy can have a major effect on both global atmosphere circulation and on your local weather.  That also means it can also affect the price PA electric suppliers charge.

The weekly ENSO report has so far showed continued warming across the Pacific Ocean. Because ocean conditions keep changing, subsequent forecasts are based on probabilities from data available at the time. For example, one forecast based on cooling SSTs from this past April called for a 40% chance of weak El Niño emerging and then fading to neutral conditions between September and November. As we have seen, that has all since changed. The recent status reports say there is a better than 65% chance that it will last through summer and a 55% chance of it lasting until fall or winter.

El Nino Effects On Atlantic Hurricanes

El Niño is important to the Atlantic hurricane season because it influences the circulation of the atmosphere at the equator (known as the Walker Circulation). As El Niño moves the Walker Circulation eastward, it brings wind shear into the western part of the MDR. That means tropical storm systems entering the MDR have a higher chance of falling apart out at sea.

This El Niño is expected to continue through the Northern Hemisphere summer and persist into the fall, possibly even lasting into winter. For cities in Pennsylvania that’s good news especially during August and September which is the height of the hurricane season when most storms form. Any late summer storms moving across the MDR will likely encounter the El Niño’s wind shearing and (hopefully) fall apart before making landfall in the U.S.

El Niños typically reach their full strength between October and February. Their atmospheric effects can bring moderate winters to most of North America. For Pennsylvania customers looking for cheap electric bills this winter, an El Niño can help reduce your winter electric usage. Not only does that cut your bills but it also drives down demand and thus lowers prices. Unfortunately, it’s still too early to know how much stronger this El Niño may become (if at all) or how much it will influence fall and winter temperatures. At the moment, it’s not expected to be anywhere as powerful the one in 2016. Most forecast models predict that only a weak El Niño will last through the winter.

Summer Weather and Your Pennsylvania Electric Bills

Natural gas use for power generation is having a decisive effect on electricity rates in Pennsylvania. Increased natural gas-fired power generation is now driving summer natural gas demand —and the bulk of electricity being used by everyone in the summer goes to air conditioning. EIA cites that natural gas consumed for power generation alone climbed by 10% from May 29 through June 5. All that usage has an effect on natural gas prices in Pennsylvania, especially when you stop and consider that summer is also when natural gas production accelerates so that enough gas can be put into storage for the coming winter.

In spite of the fact that U.S. natural gas in storage ended the winter heating season at the lowest level since 2014, prices have actually fallen. The near month natural gas futures contract closed on June 6 at a a three-year low of $2.324/mmBTU. That’s down $1.27 since the year’s high of $3.59/mmBtU on January 14. EIA’s STEO is forecasting “strong growth in U.S. natural gas production”. Natural gas storage injection rates are also high, hitting about 44% higher than the five-year average thus far for the April-October refill season. Fracking operations in west Texas have produced so much natural gas that drillers are pumping it back down into the ground to store it in old wells until prices rise.

Even still, temperatures across the country have also stayed comparatively moderate so far. Overall demand for electricity, and consequently natural gas, has also stayed below forecast demands for Pennsylvania, ERCOT in Texas, and the rest of the Eastern Interconnection states. Of course, things will probably change. After all, summer is just getting started.

Pennsylvania Electricity Usage Forecast: Heat is Coming!

The NOAA June-July_August (JJA)  2019 temperature outlook indicates above-normal seasonal mean temperatures are most likely for the eastern and western coasts, including Alaska. Below normal temperatures and wetter conditions are more likely for parts of the Central Plains. Meanwhile, there are equal chances for normal rainfall for the northeast.

Pennsylvania can expect above normal average temperatures with higher temperatures in the eastern half of the state. PJM, the grid operator for Pennsylvania, says it expects peak loads to be slightly higher this summer than in summer 2018.  EPAWA Weather Consulting, LLC (formerly Eastern PA Weather Authority) predicts July as a whole being 3°F to 6°F hotter than normal.

With summer heat spreading into the northeast, energy consumers can expect to use more energy to keep cool. However, with the exception of a very few storm systems slipping into the Gulf of Mexico and shutting down gas platforms, natural gas prices could remain low throughout the summer months. With the other exception of heat waves and high demand, low fuel costs for generators could help keep PA electricity providerprices lower. So while energy consumers might use more electricity than average this summer for cooling, there’s a chance that they won’t pay higher electricity rates.  Plus, if you take advantage of the comparatively mild weather to improve your home’s energy efficiency, you could to reduce your year ’round  electricity usage even further.

Your Pennsylvania Electric Bills — Shop for a Better Rate

While this summer’s hurricane season might not turn out to be so bad, please bear in mind that it only takes ONE storm to cause a tragedy. Even if the sun is shining and the birds are chirping happy, little songs make sure that your family has a hurricane safety plan and that everybody knows what to do in the event that dangerous weather comes to Pennsylvania.

That all said, energy customers in Pennsylvania can hope for low energy prices probably hanging on for a while longer. But those long days with high temperatures on the way! Keep your cool this summer with our other energy efficiency tips and by shopping for great electricity rates at https://www.paenergyratings.com. Compare plans, read provider reviews, and choose the best Pennsylvania electric supplier that fits your family’s needs all year round!

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