Despite bitter cold, record power demand, TVA says its ready for Toyota Mazda auto plant

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Huntsville Utilities and the Tennessee Valley Authority have been coping with heavy electricity demand amid the bitterly cold weather.

Huntsville Utilities reported that Wednesday morning marked its heaviest winter demand day ever, with 1.44 million kilowatts provided.

TVA said that across its 7-state, 9 million customer region, Wednesday morning was the 11th heaviest power demand day in its history, with 31,640 megawatts of electricity provided.

Put another way, that’s enough electricity to power New York City three times over.

WHNT News 19 viewers wondered if the utility companies are already nearing peak demand, what will happen to their ability to provide power when the announced Toyota Mazda auto plant begins operations in 2021.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said the utility will be able to comfortably handle the demand.

“The Toyota Mazda facility, expected to go in there in Huntsville, once it’s online will only take about 50 to 75 megawatts. Still a large amount of power, but not very much in terms of total demand across TVA’s entire system,” Hopson said.

TVA is adding generating capacity to its power generation fleet, he said.

“We are going in and adding some additional capacity to our system,” Hopson said. “Browns Ferry for example, we’re adding 565 megawatts of capacity there for all three units. So we have enough power to meet not only the demand today, but what we see as the growth factor in the future.”

Shane Davis, Huntsville's Director of Urban Planning, led the efforts to recruit the Toyota Mazda plant to Huntsville. He said the plant, located at a TVA megasite in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County, is ideally positioned from a utility standpoint.

“The site’s uniquely situated with a TVA substation that was put there, primarily to get direct feeds from both Huntsville Browns Ferry and the Jackson County power plants of TVA,” Davis said. “So, it’s not taking a lot off the system from a commercial and residential standpoint. It’s more set up for a direct serve by TVA, not from our local utilities.”

The current demand on the Huntsville system is intensified by the widespread use of electric heat pumps, said Joe Gehrdes, spokesman for Huntsville Utilities.

“Across our area heat pumps are normal and when the weather gets this cold they don’t operate very efficiently. So, they’re using anywhere between 5 and 10 times more electricity than they would use under normal conditions,” Gehrdes said.

TVA asked Huntsville Utilities to invite its customers to voluntarily scale back on electricity use during peak hours, mostly to reduce pressure on the system.

“The power system is a lot like a plumbing system,” said Jim Hopson, TVA spokesman. “You could put a lot of water through a plumbing system but if you keep putting through more and more water, at higher and higher pressure, that eventually can stress the system.”

Huntsville Utilities’ Gehrdes estimated about 70 percent of the utility’s customers are using heat pumps. When it gets bitterly cold, it’s not a small increase in demand.

“So 70 percent of our customers are running, asking for 5 to 10 times more power than they would be normally,” he said.

The utilities are navigating a fine line. They need to have enough electricity to meet power demand and have a reserve. But, they also want to avoid excess capacity.

“We have to do to a point with all three of our systems is design it to meet peak,” Gehrdes said.

But Wednesday’s bitterly cold temperatures made for an unusual situation.

“To overdesign to the point where we’re addressing 2-3 days every 3 to 5 years, that would be very expensive,” Gehrdes said.