MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — We learned Thursday what caused some customers to lose heat to their homes when the polar vortex pumped historic cold into Minnesota a few weeks ago.

One-hundred-and-fifty families in Princeton and 30 in Hugo were left in the cold when they lost natural gas service.

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WCCO-TV has the changes Xcel Energy is making to keep the gas flowing in the future.

He has been known to keep a close eye on the thermostat. So when it left the 70-degree mark last month in negative-30-degree temperatures, Greg Butler worried.

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“I watched it get down to 68,” Butler said. “Went down and flipped on the circuit breaker, tried restarting it, tried hitting the switch on the furnace.”

Nothing worked. The Butler’s place was one of 152 in Princeton that lost natural gas for nearly three days.

Xcel Energy told the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission Thursday why. Furnaces stay on longer in colder weather, sending more natural gas flowing through pipes, into people’s homes, and dropping the pressure to other Xcel customers along the way.

(credit: CBS)

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In the past, the company tried to predict pressure drops with computer models set at negative-26 degrees — nine degrees warmer than what temps dipped down to in Princeton.

Kent Larson is group president of operations at Xcel Energy.

“The load in that area actually was more intense than we expected with our forecast,” Larson said.

Now, they have four temporary fixes at the ready in case we see the same cold.

“So we’ve got a compressed natural gas trailer here,” Larson said.
“If you were to experience some kind of problem, you’d take it out to the site, you can hook a hose to it, you can connect that to the system.”

But in Princeton, they will have to wait for summer for a permanent solution to surface. That is when crews will replace two-inch pipes with four- or six-inch substitutes. In theory, carrying more capacity and leading to less of a pressure drop and perhaps fewer looks at the thermostat at the Butler house.

Xcel paid for hotel stays for customers without natural gas and provided a total of 2,000 space heaters to affected customers. The company also says both natural gas outages happened on the edge of the system.

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In areas, Xcel representatives say that are more difficult to predict usage than in more established areas.