Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Deep Freeze Is Worrisome

The power generation and gas supply infrastructure in Moscow are now running so close to maximum capacity that any failure in the system would hit the capital and snowball across the country, top officials said.

As electricity consumption rose to a record 16,200 megawatts on Friday -- 200 megawatts over Moscow's capacity -- electricity giant Unified Energy Systems warned that the situation remained tense and was likely to remain that way for days.

"If the temperatures remain the same throughout all of next week, we must follow the same plans for intensity of work and limitations [in power supplies]," company CEO Anatoly Chubais said in televised remarks. Scores of industrial enterprises went black due to forced power outages earlier in the week.

Temperatures warmed up over the weekend from a daytime low of minus 31 degrees Celsius on Thursday, but they were forecast to continue to stay below minus 20 C for much of this week.

The prolonged cold spell, which started last Monday night, is already affecting centrally heated Moscow apartment blocks, where temperatures have started to drop as the chill penetrates the walls of apartments where inside the heat cannot be turned up any higher.

Many residents are coping by turning on electric heaters, consequently driving up electricity consumption. The demand for more electricity, meanwhile, means that more fuel -- mainly natural gas -- is needed, causing the main gas-carrying pipelines to lose pressure and threatening the regional gas transportation system.

As a result, the government -- together with state-controlled Unified Energy Systems, or UES, and Gazprom -- is struggling to maintain some kind of balance by cutting off supplies of both electricity and gas to many industrial consumers.

The headache is compounded by worries about possible pipe ruptures. The frozen earth prevents heating pipes from carrying hotter steam because any significant increase in the temperature difference between the ground and a pipe heightens the risk of rupture. Due to the way in which Moscow's truly centralized heating system was built, a ruptured pipe could actually lead to a large part of the capital being without heat.

"Given there is such a big difference between the temperature of the ground and the heating pipes, no one can rule out that the soil won't reverberate, leading to holes and cracks in pipes," UES spokeswoman Tatyana Milyayeva said.

She said technicians were monitoring the grid more rigorously than usual to avoid accidents.

The first main pipe carrying steam ruptured Friday, leaving five apartment blocks and a school without heating, Interfax reported. The pipe was repaired after several hours.

In most cases, city dwellers get their heating, hot water and electricity through a complicated system in which extra-hot water used for power generation -- heated up to 130 C in the peak of the winter -- is pumped through the main pipes to the neighborhood heat-exchange points. There, through special heat-exchange equipment, household water and the heating system are warmed up -- but not mixed with -- water from the power plants. The cooled-off steam is returned to the plants and reused for electricity production.

Some of the longest main pipes stretch 20 kilometers from the power plants to neighborhood heat-exchange points -- nearly halfway across the city.

Although electricity usage hit a record 16,200 megawatts on Friday, the system would have been overly strained without the forced power outages. Forced outages to 256 industrial consumers saved some 533 megawatts of electricity on Thursday alone, UES said.

UES may be forced to widen the list of restricted consumers if the cold spell continues for long. But it is stressing that no residential buildings will be affected.

"The supply plan for the next day is calculated on the previous evening," said Milyayeva, the UES spokeswoman.

Increased electricity consumption and production has also led to shortages of natural gas supplies because many regions are increasing their gas intakes from the same main pipeline.

Milyayeva said Gazprom has cut gas supplies to some stations by 50 percent. To make up for the loss, UES has begun using its reserves of fuel oil.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said the company was doing what it could to maintain supplies.

UES is spending an extra 55 tons of oil fuel per day, which costs it an additional 250 million rubles ($8.8 million). UES has about 400,000 tons of reserve fuel oil in Moscow alone and is negotiating to get more.

Across Russia, electricity consumption hit an historic high of 148,400 megawatts on Wednesday. UES, which produces 70 percent of the country's electricity, has a capacity of 156,000 megawatts.

Although electricity production is significantly higher than Wednesday's record, production and distribution are not spread according to demand. The surge in Moscow and in places such as St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg means those cities' networks are dangerously close to maximum capacity levels.

With an eye on this, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu warned at a Cabinet meeting late last week that any failure -- even a minor one -- in Moscow could have a domino effect. "We cannot allow any failures in Moscow because a chain reaction will follow," he said.