It could have been worse

Hard to imagine, but this would qualify.

Texas’ power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials with the entity that operates the grid said Thursday.

As millions of customers throughout the state begin to have power restored after days of massive blackouts, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, said Texas was dangerously close to a worst-case scenario: uncontrolled blackouts across the state.

The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what was intended to be rolling blackouts — but lasted days for millions of Texans — occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

Magness said on Wednesday that if operators had not acted in that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months,” and left Texas in an “indeterminately long” crisis.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid can take months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

“As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could’ve been in blackout,” she said. “ERCOT is getting a lot of heat, but the fact that it wasn’t worse is because of those grid operators.”

Okay, you’ve convinced me, that would have been Bad. I can’t even begin to fathom what life in that scenario would look like. But look, what this means more than ever is we didn’t do a proper job of assessing and mitigating the risks that we faced. This was not an unforeseen event, nor was it a “five hundred year flood” situation, since we had extreme weather like this in 2011 and 1989, well within our institutional memory. What’s fascinating about all this is that the folks at ERCOT did a pretty good job estimating the demand that the grid would face. Where they completely missed the boat was on the supply side. Rice professor Daniel Cohan explains:

ERCOT didn’t do too badly predicting peak demand — 67 GW in its extreme scenario. We don’t know how high the actual peak would have been without these rolling blackouts, but perhaps around 5 GW higher, with some conservation by industrial consumers.

Scheduled maintenance played a role too, as plants tune up for summer peaks. Why so much of that maintenance continued amid week-ahead forecasts of an Arctic blast deserves a closer look.

But ERCOT’s biggest miss came in preparing for outages at what it thought were “firm” resources — gas, coal, and nuclear. Those outages topped 30 GW, more than double ERCOT’s worst-case scenario. Just one of those gigawatts came from a temporary outage at a nuclear unit. Most of the rest came from gas.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of individual gas power plants broke down. Most outages came because delivery systems failed to supply gas to those plants at the consistent pressures that they need.

These failures highlight the unique vulnerabilities of relying so heavily on natural gas for power. Only gas electricity relies on a continuous supply of a fossil fuel delivered from hundreds of miles away. And that fuel is also needed for heat. So when an Arctic blast drives up demand and drives down supply of heat and electricity at the same time, power plants languish in line while homes and hospitals get the heating fuel they need.

That makes these blackouts an energy systems crisis, not just a power crisis. Every one of our power sources underperformed. Every one of them has unique vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by extreme events. None of them prepared adequately for extreme cold.

That was adapted from this Twitter thread, and you should read them both. There’s a lot that can and should be done to improve the system, and we need to think of it in systemic terms. Even Greg Abbott seems to think we need to think big:

I mean, I don’t have any faith in anything Abbott wants to do, but at least he’s not talking about something that’s completely disconnected from, or opposite to, the problem. That’s better than what we’re used to. Maybe the Lege can take it from there.

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7 Responses to It could have been worse

  1. Manny says:

    About $150 million an hour is what Texas lost in income, the Republicans doing what they do best, not govern.

  2. Jen says:

    It could have been better, too, with the power situation just as it was. After power was mostly restored the PUC made a rule that no customer could be without power for more than 12 hours from a scheduled blackout. If this rule had been in place earlier, much much misery and not a few deaths could have been averted.

  3. Lobo says:

    Re: Winterization of Power Generation Infrastructure

    Why wasn’t this mandated 10 years ago? — And whose decision was that, with full awareness of the problem as already experienced and analyzed?

    Now, the public (consumers/real people) have paid the price/borne the consequences of system failure, and on top of that, Abbott wants the public to pay for the upgrades that should long have been a condition of doing business (enforceable standards, not just lame recommended “best practices”) as is the case elsewhere. If all generating companies are required to winterize, the opportunity to generate higher profits from not doing so will be removed, and ratepayers will bear the costs of the upgrades, including industries that consume electric power, rather than the brunt being borne primarily by living, breathing, and freezing Texans.


    Additionally, some serious thinking needs to go into a more rational rationing of power in an emergency, including the ability of local or state authorities to order that inessential skyline lighting in central biz districts be cut off by building maintenance companies themselves. Shut-offs of entire neighborhoods by regional grid operators is a very blunt tool to reduce demand and some areas can’t be shut off if they include hospitals that cannot be excepted.

    And individuals need to know when they can expect service to return (at least a firm maximum number of hours of “controlled outrage”), otherwise they will have every incentive to maximize usage immediately when available/restored (and raise house temperature more than necessary, for example). Under conditions of uncertainty, the equivalent of “hoarding” behavior can be expected.

  4. David Fagan says:

    Ercot wil be looking for a new PR person, cause who ok’d the “yeah, it’s really, really, bad. But, look on the bright side, it was almost armageddon!” message?

    House design needs to change from a grid dependent to a more self sustaining design.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Agree with Jen and Wolf, and David has some good points. Just remember, David, that every mandate to make houses more self sufficient makes housing more unaffordable, even older housing that doesn’t meet the new standard. People priced out of the market for new efficient housing will bid the price up for older housing like mine.

  6. David Fagan says:

    “Affordable” housing is correct. The houses built today are manufactured beams held together with glue and people buy these houses for half a million dollars (and they’re all over the place). Figuring in for inflation, people are actually paying the same per square foot as in the early 70’s. But, materials are cheaper and minimum square footage, which is also mandated by neighborhoods, went from 1100 square feet to 2500 square feet. The older, better built, houses also have smaller square footage.

    To make housing more affordable it needs to start with people’s income, cost, and figure square footage from there. But, If minimum square footage is in a neighborhood’s bylaws, then housing will be outside people’s ability to pay.

    Not saying this is the only idea, or the only option, just one small consideration I’ve thought about. Everyone feel free to throw some ideas out there without kicking another to the curb.

  7. 5 yrs ago the TX State House Rs defeated HB2571 by a vote of 84-no to 47-yes. It would have mandated that power plants maintain and prepare their systems for emergency weather. Dade Phelan, current Speaker, was a no vote. The governor conveniently ignores this. He supported ERCOT with all its unreliability. Now that we’ve had this state wide catastrophe he acts as if it’s a shock and has the nerve to adk the feds for money when ERCOT was formed to avoid federal regulation. You can call Speaker Phelan (512-463-1000) to put forth a meaningful bill to fund a system that will work. This is what happens when a state government denies that the climate is changing!!

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