How El Niño/La Niña Can Affect Your Electricity Bill

By Vernon Trollinger, September 5, 2012, Energy Efficiency, FAQs, Hurricane Prep, News, Save Money

Even though the El Niño/La Niña weather event occurs in the eastern Pacific ocean, it has global effects. By altering sea surface temperatures over a significant part of the Pacific Ocean, it directly impacts weather over the Atlantic Ocean, South America, and especially North America. In one version, it can interfere with hurricane formation, the other way it can make winters bitterly cold in the north central US while leaving states along the Gulf of Mexico temperate and dry. It can also raise and lower your Texas energy rates.

How El Niño/La Niña works

Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) along the equator from the international date line (180° latitude) eastwards to South America cause El Niño/La Niña events. An El Niño forms when SSTs warm up, while cooling SSTs brings on a La Niña. The amount of heat, however, doesn’t need to be very much —usually no more than 3 to 6 degrees °F above or below normal temperature. However, the reason for the global weather effect is that this area is the widest expanse of open equatorial ocean on the planet and has the potential to absorb the most amount of heat from the sun. In short, a whole lot of water can heat or cool the atmosphere, change wind patterns, and alter the weather.

El Niño typically lasts 9-12 months while La Niña lasts 1-3 years. Both tend to emerge between March-June, reaching their peak intensity during December-April. The name El Niño comes from the west coast of South America because the phenomena often coincides with Christmas. El Niño/La Niña events typically weaken and dissipate from May-July. El Niño and La Niña episodes cycle roughly every 3-5 years, but have varied from 2 to 7 years. Prolonged El Niño episodes have lasted 2 years and some have lingered for 3-4 years. At present, NOAA declared that the El Niño of 2012 dissipated in early summer — but recent data has NOAA predicting that a weak El Niño will emerge in late August or September.

Weather Effects On Texas

In years when an El Niño occurs, jet streams in the eastern Pacific gain strength. Low pressure storm system formation shifts eastward in the north Pacific. These systems are more active and pump abnormally warm air into western Canada, Alaska, and the northern tier of the United States. The effect is warmer winter weather with the Polar jet being pushed further northward. Likewise, storm systems to the south are also more active and follow consistent tracks. Consequently, the southern US experiences wetter winter weather but brisk upper level winds tend to keep temperatures cool. For Texas, it means that winters tend to be wetter and cooler. Although that might not sound really bad after along hot summer, strong El Niño patterns in the past have brought flooding that caused billions of dollars in damage. Temperatures in southern Texas during the El Niño of 2009-2010 averaged about 10 degrees below normal while rain rose more than 6 inches above normal.
La Niña patterns, on the other hand, bring warmer, drier weather to Texas. On February 2, 2011, in spite of the typical La Niña warm weather track, an Arctic high pressure front in the upper Midwest and plains was powerful enough to reach its icy grip deep into the heart of Texas. This cold snap caused power plants to freeze and resulted in rolling blackouts and high wholesale prices paid by your Texas electricity provider.

Hurricanes

Hurricane season also experiences the effects of El Niño/La Niña. During El Niño events, winds in the Atlantic and Caribbean basins tends to be different at the surface from those aloft at higher altitudes. This cause vertical wind shearing and inhibits hurricanes from forming. In the Pacific, however, there is less wind shearing and hurricanes have ideal conditions to form. During La Niña, the opposite holds: wind shearing rises in the Pacific but drops in the Atlantic/Caribbean.

Effects On Your Texas Electric Rate

El Niño/La Niña events effect how much energy you use to heat and cool your home. During a La Niña, the winter time in Texas is usually warm and dry compared to the average. Temperatures will tend to be a few degrees above normal, there will be less rain fall and humidity, and you will spend less heating your home. The opposite happens with El Niño where winter temperatures will tend to be cooler, have more rainfall, and you might spend a little more heating your home. One hidden effect is the price of natural gas that is used to generate over half the electric power in Texas and heat homes in the north central states during the winter. An El Niño tends to bring warm weather to the northern states and natural gas usage drops, reducing the the natural gas price. When La Niña brings colder weather, more natural gas is used and the natural gas price rises…and so does your Texas electricity rate.

During strong El Niño/La Niña events, the effects of temperatures and precipitation can be exaggerated (witness the El Niño of 2009-2010 and the La Niña of 2010-2011). As mentioned, NOAA has issued an El Niño Watch and states “El Niño conditions are likely to develop during August or September 2012.” Unfortunately, this kind of warning doesn’t provide any real certainty about how much you will pay your Texas electricity provider this winter.

The best way to prepare right now is to switch your energy plan to a fixed rate plan that takes advantage of the current lull between summer and winter rates. By switching to a low fixed rate with Bounce Energy, you can lock in today’s prices for as long as two years and protect your energy budget from both rising prices and extreme weather conditions.

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About 

A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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