Feb. 1—The consequences of the frigid air bearing down on Southcentral Alaska rippled through the region Thursday as utilities grappled with heavy demand, power outages and burst sewer pipes, and leaders of one of the state's largest utilities recommended that residents proactively conserve electricity and natural gas.
With much of the state descending into deep cold, Southcentral is experiencing some of its lowest temperatures of the season. Temperatures dropped below minus 20 in Anchorage and below minus 30 in parts of Mat-Su by Thursday morning.
Anchorage hit a record low on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. A reading of minus 18 recorded just before 11:30 p.m. Wednesday at the agency's Sand Lake offices broke a 35-year-old daily low temperature record from 1989 of minus 17.
Enstar Natural Gas president John Sims said during a briefing at Anchorage City Hall on Thursday morning that demand for natural gas during the cold snap and other issues are putting the Cook Inlet gas supply under the most strain he's ever seen.
Sims said Enstar could hit a peak load record for demand on Thursday night. During the briefing, Mayor Dave Bronson and utility officials urged residents to conserve natural gas and power as a precautionary measure during this cold snap but said there are no specific conservation measures in place.
As temperatures plunged overnight into Thursday, a brief but widespread power outage unrelated to the natural gas system left about 20,000 households from Anchorage to the Susitna Valley without electricity just after midnight, officials said.
Matanuska Electric Association's Eklutna Generation Station suffered a "major outage" around 12:30 a.m., leaving crews scrambling to restore power using backup generators, officials said. The plant's outage knocked out power to more than 9,200 MEA members, many near Wasilla and in Eagle River and some as far north as Caswell and Petersville. Another 12,400 Chugach Electric Association customers lost power due to load shedding triggered by the Matanuska Electric outage.
Both utilities said power was restored by 1 a.m.
In an update Thursday morning, MEA officials said the outage began around 12:15 a.m. when a gas leak shut down one engine, triggering safety mechanisms that resulted in multiple engine shutdowns. Officials said the leak was caused by a misaligned pipe that occurred on one of the 10 engines at the Eklutna plant.
They stressed that the problem is not due to the cold, and that the outage was not related to any problems with gas supply.
"Last night was just an equipment failure," Tony Zellers, Matanuska Electric's chief operating officer, said at the briefing. "It happened at a bad time with everything else going on. But it does happen from time to time."
Matanuska crews were working Thursday to "ensure there are no additional mechanical issues," the utility said in its update.
Problems at Cook Inlet storage wells add stress
Sims said that the effects of cold weather and other issues at a depleted reservoir in Cook Inlet that's now used for gas storage have added to the unusually high stress on the region's gas delivery system.
Two of five wells at the facility, called Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage Alaska, are not delivering gas like they're supposed to, he said. That's reducing the storage facility's ability to deliver gas to utilities by about 30%.
Sand has entered one of the wells, reducing the amount of gas it provides, he said. The other well is supplying less gas due to pressure from high demand during low temperatures.
The storage facility can play a critical role in frigid times. It receives gas in the summer that can be deployed to supplement other sources of natural gas, meeting the region's high winter demand.
Sims said the reduced rate of gas from the wells and strong demand for heat and power has created a "thin line" before the region enters a "yellow" conservation status that calls on residents to take specific measures to reduce energy use.
"I've been here since 2005, and this the most strained I've seen the system," he said during the briefing. "In large part, it's because of the outage or the reduction in deliverability at CINGSA. And if this were to happen 10 years ago, there would be ample supplies to kind of cover that gap."
"Yellow" is different from the "green" status that's typically in place and calls for "conservation-minded" energy use. The plans fall under the Anchorage municipality's "Energy Watch" program created more than a decade ago during an earlier round of concern about Cook Inlet gas supply.
Steps under "yellow" can include dialing household thermostats down to 65 degrees, turning off unused lights, and postponing doing laundry and dishes.
Sims said utilities are employing a number of steps to avoid reaching the need for conservation measures including suspending a program that shares power produced in Southcentral with Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks. That forces Golden Valley, which relies heavily on costly diesel fuel, to produce more power locally.
Mayor Dave Bronson said at the briefing that he has directed city departments to turn down the heat and keep lights off when possible. The mayor said he's taken similar steps at home.
Sims said the current situation amplifies the long-term challenge that Railbelt utilities face with gas supply.
Utilities are scrambling to find new energy sources amid a looming shortage that surfaced in 2022 when Hilcorp said it lacked enough natural gas reserves to supply gas for new contracts in the coming years.
Sims has voiced concerns that a shortage in the Railbelt region could come as early as 2026, increasing the risk of gas supply interruptions that could lead to issues including rolling brownouts.
Alaska State Troopers say cold exposure may have caused the death of a Sutton man after a fire at his home late Tuesday. In Anchorage, three overnight warming facilities were authorized last weekend under an emergency order that extends until Feb. 13.
A faulty boiler shut down school at Anchorage's Klatt Elementary on Thursday. The deep freeze led to sewer issues in Wasilla, which lacks the gravity systems used by other cities, including Anchorage. By Thursday afternoon, public works director Erich Schaal said the city had received 24 reports of frozen pump vaults at homes and businesses served by the city's sewer system.
[Over 1,000 Anchorage building owners warned of snow collapse risk and danger to workers]
The plunging temperatures followed a winter storm Sunday and Monday that dropped another 17 inches of snow on Anchorage in the middle of an already snowy winter. The city's snowfall topped 8 feet as of Monday, the earliest point in the winter on record that the city's accumulation has reached 100 inches and already one of its 10 snowiest winters. Two back-to-back roof collapses occurred in commercial buildings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Meteorologists warned of little change in the deep cold Thursday with an arctic airmass solidly in place over the region. Many inland areas have dropped to minus 30 or colder except for some areas around Cook Inlet, where low clouds and fog kept temperatures a bit warmer, the agency said.
Weather service officials say they had readings of minus 33 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, minus 26 at Eagle River and in the Campbell Creek drainage, minus 28 in Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula and minus 36 in Willow on Thursday morning. Temperatures on the Hillside were recorded at minus 20, and minus 17 was recorded at Merrill Field.
The forecast doesn't call for temperatures to rise much above zero until Saturday.
Reporter Tess Williams contributed to this story.