Weather Conditions An Integral Part Of Southeast Texas LDC’s Planning

April 2009 Vol. 236 No. 4

Rich Wilson, Director of Energy Services, DTN/Meteorlogix

No matter where a natural gas company is located, weather undoubtedly affects its energy demand and pricing year-round. Further still, varying weather conditions can have a measurable impact on a gas company’s daily operations, ranging from staffing and scheduling to the protection of company assets. Although these issues are universal for utility providers, for smaller or rural utilities these situations can often times be even more difficult as they face tighter financial or staffing resources.

To plan for the number of situations that can be caused by severe weather, many utility companies rely on outside weather providers to supply more precise information needed to operate more efficiently without wasting necessary resources. In fact, it is rare to find any utility company with the resources to have a trained meteorologist as a part of its internal staff. Instead, utilities are finding it more cost-effective to invest in an industry-specialized weather provider to supply the necessary information. That specialized information can then be monitored by an internal staff to make decisions on potential demand, staffing, budgeting and asset protection.

Most advanced weather providers are subscription-based services that can supply utilities with more comprehensive information than the average daily or long-term forecast. Ranging in services and cost, depending on the depth of the information, advanced weather providers can offer a variety of features including enhanced radar capabilities and “real-time” weather conditions for a specific service area.

Unlike long-term or free daily forecasts, advanced weather services provide utility companies frequent updates on current or developing conditions that are likely to affect a utility’s ability to provide service to its customers. Some weather services also offer consultations with a live meteorologist who has insight into the energy industry to provide tailored information.

Bay City Gas – Poised And Ready For Growth

Bay City Gas is a natural gas company that serves a small town in rural southeastern Texas. Located approximately 90 miles south of Houston and only 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Bay City Gas relies heavily on its weather provider to plan for and address operations issues on a daily basis. Relatively small in size, Bay City Gas has 15 full-time employees and serves approximately 4,200 customers – the vast majority being residential.

Being a smaller city, Bay City Gas has not seen much growth during the past two decades. Although there has been little need for the expansion of natural gas lines in the past 20 years, the city is bracing for what could be a large expansion in the next five to 10 years. The local nuclear power plant is planning to build two expansions to its current operations which will create hundreds of well-paying jobs.

To prepare for the potential growth, Bay City has recently made moves to create new housing developments and has welcomed commercial businesses to town such as a new Wal-Mart and a few popular chain restaurants. These new developments have helped spur additional demand and construction of natural gas pipelines on behalf of Bay City Gas.

Bay City Gas Director Kevin Hecht is pleased with the growth but also realizes the difficulties in laying new pipelines in a region prone to weather-related challenges. “Although we are in a flat, even heavy clay area that makes excavating fairly straightforward, being located on the Gulf [of Mexico] results in a lot of heavy rain,” explains Hecht. “We can receive up to 60 inches of rain in a given year and that can severely disrupt daily excavations plans.”

Forecasting and planning for persistent or heavy rain is a daily concern for Hecht, who is charged with devising schedules for maintenance and repair crews. Without a trained meteorologist on staff and unwilling to use information from Houston, Hecht recently subscribed to MxVision WeatherSentry® Energy Edition by DTN/Meteorlogix – an online weather provider that offers real-time weather information set to Bay City’s specific latitude and longitude and provides customized information relevant to the needs of the gas company.

“I need to know exactly when to expect rain, when I should expect it to stop and if lightning is involved – when it is safe to get my crew back out to the work site,” continued Hecht. “Knowing ahead of time that we are going to be facing rain or severe weather allows me to schedule indoor maintenance items such as vehicle or equipment checks for those days.”

Using the specialized service, Hecht can view weather conditions in real time with an advanced customizable radar and forecasts based on the exact latitude and longitude of his service area. The service helps Hecht more accurately measure the weather information most important to his needs with multi-layered radar that enables him to track any number of conditions all on one screen, including wind speed, precipitation, air and ground temperature, jet stream movement and lightning strikes.

Because Bay City is a smaller city, the local forecasts are generated out of nearby cities such as Houston. Calculating conditions as they relate to its exact longitude and latitude, Bay City Gas can more accurately track the path of incoming weather and assess the impact for its workers and its customers.

“I can use the service to project out three or four days or I can look at the customized weather reports I receive in the morning, and decide if weather is going to be a factor that day and make adjustments accordingly,” Hecht explained.

Planning For Demand

Aside from scheduling the day-to-day maintenance or construction schedules, Bay City Gas also struggles with weather’s impact on demand. In the winter, it is imperative for the gas company to have an accurate forecast for daily and hourly temperature forecasts. A sudden drop in temperature overnight or in the early morning will create a swell in demand for natural gas, but in Texas the temperatures can swing drastically in a matter of hours.

To better prepare for sudden increases in demand caused by temperature changes, the company can monitor and forecast dips in temperature with the advanced radar which provides layers of information, including ground temperatures.

The system also provides Bay City Gas with customized alerts to notify them when colder temperatures are likely to occur. The alerts first appear on the weather monitors in a bright flashing icon, but can be programmed to be sent via e-mail to an appropriate company employee. The notification then allows Bay City Gas to properly adjust the flow of natural gas through its pipes with a better sense of the true demand potential.

Explained Hecht, “We definitely pay attention when we are alerted to hard freezes or severe dips in temperature. We’ll use that information to go out and make adjustments to our equipment to make sure that we have the right configuration for a steep increase in demand and take the proper precautions at the physical plant for the event of subfreezing temperatures, sleet or ice.”

Prepared For Hurricanes

Of course, being located on the Gulf of Mexico also leaves Bay City Gas vulnerable to the most severe weather condition – hurricanes. Most recently, Bay City had a direct run-in last fall with Hurricane Ike. Ike has been recorded as the third-most devastating hurricane to make landfall in the United States.

“Although we use our weather provider for daily operations, it is incredibly useful during hurricane season,” said Hecht. “We not only have to deal with protecting our own plant and equipment, but I also have to plan for the security and the safety of our workforce and customers.”

Using the advanced weather technology, Hecht was able to track Hurricane Ike while it was still out in the Gulf and prepare for its landfall. The service provides a special hurricane offering that allows users to pull up any activity in the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf of Mexico and accurately track the movement, speed, strength and projected path of a hurricane or tropical storm. It also includes discussion board and online chat sessions with meteorologists offering their insights into each storm’s activity.

“With Ike, I watched everything very closely to get a better idea of where the wall of the hurricane was and when it could begin to impact our service area,” recalled Hecht, a 10-year utility veteran who has worked as director of Bay City Gas since 2004. “We needed to begin to protect our assets that included our larger primary facility, the equipment yard and smaller stations.”

For Ike, all of Bay City needed to be evacuated as projections called for the hurricane to make a direct hit on the city. With the proper precautions and advanced notice, Bay City Gas was able to withstand the event with minimal damages. The city also was prepared. After having close run-ins with hurricanes in the past, Bay City Gas annually reviews its preparedness plans, contacts liaisons with city, county and state departments, updates contacts information, and takes steps to prepare the facilities for hurricane conditions. The company also uses its website to communicate general safety information to the public in the event of severe weather.

For the majority of utility companies, weather conditions will always be an uncontrollable liability. For Bay City Gas the idea is to be as prepared as possible. This holds true for daily conditions, severe thunderstorms or even hurricanes. As a community-driven gas company, it acknowledges the importance of comprehensive weather information to provide the best possible service for its customers while making the most of its resources.