Coal piles froze and electric clocks ran slow as a winter cold snap forced electric utility firms to reduce power in Ohio and neighboring states during the last 2 1/2 days.

Government weather forecasters, in the meantime, said that this winter, which has already claimed 23 weather related fatalities - 14 alone in Ohio - will not be as severe as last year's.

Yesterday, however, the National Weather Service said the eastern half of the country can expect lower than normal temperatures during the next 10 days because of frigid air forced south from Canada because of shifting wind patterns.

Unlike last winter, when natural gas shortages forced more than 300,000 out of work and closed schools in many states, the only weather-spurred energy problems so far this winter have been with electric utilities.

"We are guardedly optimistic about the current situation; the utilities have it under control," William Fisher of the Department of Energy said yesterday.

Monday and Tuesday heavy rain followed by freezing - in some instances near-zero - weather froze coal stockpiles in Ohio, parts of Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Late Tuesday Chicago Commonwealth Edison was forced to reduced voltages, a power drop that the companies' engineers said caused electric clocks to run an average of 27.7 seconds slow. Yesterday, however, the company said that it was able to provide service without reducing output.

Utilities, which usually mix frozen coal with unfrozen supplies before it is pulverized and sent to boilers, were using explosives and bulldozers yesterday to break up frozen coal supplies. Because of the large percentage of frozen coal and difficulty with conveyor machinery in the freezing weather, many utilities in the Midwest were forced to reduce power.

The American Electric Power Cor., which provides utilities in seven Midwestern states, was forced to reduce its generating capacity by almost 38 per cent at one point because of frozen coal stocks.

DOE officials said yesterday that four utilities - the Tennessee Valley Authority, Dayton Power and Light Co., Columbus, and Southern Ohio Electric Co. and Duke Power Co. - were still operating at nearly a 5 per cent reduction in output.

Fisher said,"The situation in the Midwest has moderated substantially" as utilities by freezing weather were able to buy 1,800 megawatts of electrical power from Canadian suppliers yesterday, and consumers responded to pleas to conserve energy.

There were few layoffs as a result of the power problems reported yesterday, although the Buckeye Steel Co. in Columbus temporarily sent 550 workers from their jobs, and the Railston Purina Co. closed part of its Circleville, Ohio, plant.

As was the case last year during the natural gas shortages, Ohio has been the hardest hit state during this first spate of winter energy problems. Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes, however, did not declare a state of emergency, although he did call on Ohio's National Guard to help motorists stranded near Cleveland.

Rhodes' staff has also been in contact with DOE's Winter Emergency Center, although DOE officials say the utilites have the situation under control.

Locally, the Potomac Electric Power Co. said it expects no difficulties meeting power demands.