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So what’s going on with the power supply?

First, as a personal update, we have been without power at our house since about 7 PM on Monday, and we had no Internet on Tuesday morning. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening from my in-laws’ house, where they have had both since earlier in the day. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll be able to return home, but maybe not. Expect my output to be spotty for the next few days – I happened to have the two Fort Bend posts queued up over the weekend, so that helped. From here on out, it’s up in the air.

Let’s start with the basic question of what went wrong?

Millions of Texans were without heat and electricity Monday as snow, ice and frigid temperatures caused a catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid.

The Texas power grid, powered largely by wind and natural gas, is relatively well equipped to handle the state’s hot and humid summers when demand for power soars. But unlike blistering summers, the severe winter weather delivered a crippling blow to power production, cutting supplies as the falling temperatures increased demand.

Natural gas shortages and frozen wind turbines were already curtailing power output when the Arctic blast began knocking generators offline early Monday morning.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which is responsible for scheduling power and ensuring the reliability of the electrical network, declared a statewide power generation shortfall emergency and asked electricity delivery companies to reduce load through controlled outages.

More than 4 million customers were without power in Texas, including 1.4 million in the Houston area, the worst power crisis in the state in a decade. The forced outages are expected to last at least through part of Tuesday, the state grid manager said.

CenterPoint Energy, the regulated utility that delivers electricity to Houston-area homes and provides natural gas service, started rolling blackouts in the Houston region at the order of state power regulators. It said customers experiencing outages should be prepared to be without power at least through Monday.

“How long is it going to be? I don’t know the answer,” said Kenny Mercado, executive vice president at the Houston utility. “The generators are doing everything they can to get back on. But their work takes time and I don’t know how long it will take. But for us to move forward, we have got to get generation back onto the grid. That is our primary need.”

Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of system operations, said the rolling blackouts are taking more power offline for longer periods than ever before. An estimated 34,000 megawatts of power generation — more than a third of the system’s total generating capacity — had been knocked offline by the extreme winter weather amid soaring demand as residents crank up heating systems.

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, blamed the failures on the state’s deregulated power system, which doesn’t provide power generators with the returns needed to invest in maintaining and improving power plants.

“The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” said Hirs. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.

“For more than a decade, generators have not been able to charge what it costs them to produce electricity,” said Hirs. “If you don’t make a return on your money, how can you keep it up? It’s like not taking care of your car. If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work.”

Woodfin said ERCOT and generators followed best practices for winterization, but the severity of the weather was unprecedented — “well beyond the design parameters of an extreme Texas winter.”

The hit to power generation came as frigid weather froze wind turbines and forced outages among natural gas and other power plants. Most of the power knocked offline came from thermal sources, Woodfin said, particularly natural gas.

Yes, the vast bulk of the drop in capacity came from natural gas.

Failures across Texas’ natural gas operations and supply chains due to extreme temperatures are the most significant cause of the power crisis that has left millions of Texans without heat and electricity during the winter storm sweeping the U.S.

From frozen natural gas wells to frozen wind turbines, all sources of power generation have faced difficulties during the winter storm. But Texans largely rely on natural gas for power and heat generation, especially during peak usage, experts said.

Officials for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages most of Texas’ grid, said that the primarily cause of the outages on Tuesday appeared to be the state’s natural gas providers. Many are not designed to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production.

By some estimates, nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt due to the extremely low temperatures, while freezing components at natural gas-fired power plants have forced some operators to shut down.

“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. While he said all of Texas’ energy sources share blame for the power crisis — at least one nuclear power plant has partially shut down, most notably — the natural gas industry is producing significantly less power than normal.

“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Webber said.

More than half of ERCOT’s winter generating capacity, largely powered by natural gas, was offline due to the storm, an estimated 45 gigawatts, according to Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.

The outages during this storm far exceeded what ERCOT had predicted in November for an extreme winter event. The forecast for peak demand was 67 gigawatts; peak usage during the storm was more than 69 gigawatts on Sunday.

It’s estimated that about 80% of the grid’s capacity, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power. Only 7% of ERCOT’s forecasted winter capacity, or six gigawatts, was expected to come from various wind power sources across the state.

Woodfin said Tuesday that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, is offline and that 30 gigawatts of thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy, is offline.

So don’t blame wind, or at least don’t blame it more than you blame gas. And wherever you’re from, remember to have a little compassion for the suffering of others. Don’t be like this, and especially don’t be like this.

It’s been a long day, and like much of the state, I’m out of energy. If you want to read more, Bloomberg and Gizmodo and other sources are out there. I understand that the ERCOT situation has now been added to the list of emergency items for the Lege to consider. I’d suggest that it’s the only real emergency among those items, and it’s not going to be fixed without a major overhaul of the kind that this Legislature and this Governor will not accept, but at least it’s on the agenda. Assuming they can restore power to the Capitol in time for them to do anything about it, of course. Stay warm and safe, y’all.

UPDATE: Here’s some cheerful news.

Texas’ power grid operators can’t predict when outages might end, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials said Tuesday.

As of 6 p.m. more than 3 million Texans, many of them in North Texas, are enduring extended outages as icy conditions have settled in across the region.

ERCOT, the agency that oversees the state’s power grid, is trying to avoid a total blackout by instructing utility companies, including Oncor Electric Delivery, to cut power to customers.

“We needed to step in and make sure that we were not going to end up with Texas in a blackout, which could keep folks without power — not just some people without power but everyone in our region without power — for much, much longer than we believe this event is going to last, as long and as difficult as this event is right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said.

When reporters pressed for a timeline, he and Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin could not say how much longer the outages would last. An uncontrolled blackout could leave Texans without power for “an indeterminate amount of time,” maybe a month, Magness said.

We’re going to need some better answers than that.

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10 Comments

  1. Flypusher says:

    “ I’d suggest that it’s the only real emergency among those items, and it’s not going to be fixed without a major overhaul of the kind that this Legislature and this Governor will not accept, but at least it’s on the agenda. ”

    Can’t fix a problem if you can’t/ won’t correctly identity the cause of the problem. Too many these right wingers who were elected to deal with it see this as an opportunity to bash wind power. Never mind that Iowa gets a higher percentage of their energy from wind, and our current winter storm is mild by their standards. Never mind that wind farms operate in places like the North Sea. You can winterize wind turbines. And natural gas pipelines.

  2. Mainstream says:

    I have been quite dismayed by how divided and polarized we have become. My friends on the left speak of this event as a failure of the free market, failure of a go-it-alone state grid, proof of climate change. My friends on the right are posting about the need for more nuclear power, the folly of reliance on wind and solar, the need for more oil and gas production and hence less business regulation.

    Please stay safe, everyone.

  3. Manny says:

    Mainstream, what exactly do you mean that they criticize the free market? I think it the typical Republican playbook they do it a first method of justifying the ability to prepare for emergencies.

    What part of solar or wind turbines is not a private industry?

  4. Manny says:

    the inability to prepare

  5. I believe in Fracking. I do not believe in Gas Lines.

  6. David Fagan says:

    Ask Oklahomans about fracking.

    While the rain falls, get a large water container, one like a bleach bottle, cut the bottom out to fit over a gutter and collect water toward the spout of the bottle, when the bottle is full, put over a five gallon bucket and open the spout of the bottle to fill the five gallon bucket, DO NOT DRINK THIS WATER, it can be poured through a colander to filter leaves and sticks to flush your toilet.

  7. Lobo says:

    HOT ABBOTT AIR, FINGER WAGGING AT WINDMILLS, AND CALLS FOR FIRINGS

    “Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blames wind turbines, Green New Deal policies for outages.” WASHINGTON POST (Feb. 17, 2021).

    The Trib. has good coverage of the matter:

    Frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages [and could have been winterized to operate in colder conditions, as they do up North]
    https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/16/texas-wind-turbines-frozen/

    Also, the basic problem is not what ERCOT is doing now in the crisis – they are rationing power at the state-level, while the grid operators are rationing at the regional level — but the absence of regulation to require winterizing of existing generating capacity (regardless of fuel type) which is only voluntary (“best practices”). And the ERCOT generation unit site visits weren’t really inspections because the “standards” weren’t binding and enforceable. Axing the folks at ERCOT can’t solve those problems, which are in the nature of fundamental failures of public policy for which the Republican state leaders bear responsibility.

  8. Jason Hochman says:

    Lobo, the windmills apparently did need to be de-iced, but they aren’t the main problem. It is of course much more complex, many factors involved, but I find it hard to believe that there have been such massive failures of power supply. I mean, it is not that cold. It is winter, and below freezing temperatures are a possibility.

  9. Jen says:

    From the KHOU Verify story-

    “In ERCOT’s annual forecast released in November, ERCOT said nearly 83,000 megawatts of capacity was expected to be available this winter, including 928 megawatts from winter-rated wind power and 35 megawatts from solar power.

    In a separate Winter Summary published on December 16, 2020, ERCOT listed 6,204 megawatts of power capacity for combined wind sources. Total capacity for all sources was listed as 84,966 megawatts.

    WFAA emailed Gov. Abbott’s office on Wednesday morning to ask why the Governor shared misinformation in his interview with Fox News. The Governor’s office has not responded to our email.”

    https://www.khou.com/article/news/verify/no-wind-solar-power-not-main-causes-texas-power-outages-despite-gov-abbott-claim-fox-news-verify/287-6bcde08d-80a0-47cc-9181-f4a45044fcf2

  10. Why do social and fiscal conservatives every vote democrat? I will give you a reason….

    Karl Rove was on Fax News today. He said the problem with Texas and the black outs is “the poor job the Democrats did in the 90’s with putting up the current infrastructure.” I kid you not. It was as if he didn’t know that the Republicans have been controlling the state for the last 25 years. Rick Perry was the Secretary of Energy for God’s sake. I can’t stand these guys. That doesn’t mean I am going to vote for “take your gun” Beto either. (already tried that. It was called Waco). This group is just crap.