Last week the people of Texas had their most recent close encounter with extreme weather. For the sixth time in twenty years, temperatures dropped to frigid lows and demand for electricity, as could be expected, shot up. But the manager of the Texas grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (“ERCOT”) was singularly ill-equipped to face this foreseeable contingency. This is a complicated story, so let’s take it one step at a time.
Texas, in contrast to the other 47 contiguous states in the United States, manages a largely isolated grid and is by and large not interconnected to out-of-state electricity generators. To avoid federal regulation and “protect” the state’s powerful oil and gas industry, the state has created a largely independent and lightly-regulated utility network. As a result, 90% of the electricity consumed in Texas is generated in-state.
Given this extreme reliance on in-state sources of power, you would imagine that ERCOT would require generators to plan and implement a robust system maintenance program and to keep sufficient reserve generation to supply electricity on the coldest and warmest days of the year. But, as the Washington Post reports, you would be wrong, as “Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.” In fact, “utility companies often don’t [even] bother to buy gas reserves: It’s easier, cheaper and more profitable to tap the gas in the field with a pipeline — usually.”
And that is precisely where troubles began last week. As the temperature plunged, natural gas wells froze and diesel engines for well pumps refused to start. Overland natural gas pipelines were not designed for this weather, so they also failed. Without access to natural gas, many thermal generators had to shut down operations precisely at a time when demand was surging. In addition, other generators (wind, coal, and even nuclear) also had to go offline because controls and instruments were not weatherized and also failed.
Now, ERCOT, just like any other grid operator, must balance supply and demand for electricity. “If demand exceeds supply, generators strain to meet the greater load and plants automatically disconnect to avoid damaging overworked generators, triggering a cascade of shutdowns that can blackout the entire state. A grid operator’s primary job is to avoid this outcome.” By Sunday, February 14, demand for electricity hit a winter record of 69,150 megawatts, while by Monday morning more than 30,000 megawatts of generation capacity had gone offline.
As the margin between supply and demand became increasingly slim, ERCOT had three options.
- First, call on out-of-state grid operators to help Texas meet the increased demand. But since Texas is largely not connected to other states, this was not really an option. Furthermore, neighboring states were also facing unprecedented weather conditions so it is highly unlikely they could have helped much.
- Second, ERCOT members could cut off power to large industrial users who have previously agreed to be shut down during an emergency. Apparently, ERCOT did implement this option but it was not sufficient to stabilize the system.
- Finally, the last option was to reduce demand by implementing rolling blackouts, of approximately 45 minutes each, throughout different regions. ERCOT’s grid operators also implemented this program, but as supply kept falling at a fast rate, ERCOT was unable to “roll” the blackouts, which led to energy outages lasting several days.
According to some experts, Texas was “minutes, perhaps seconds” from experiencing a catastrophic event that would have left large parts of the state without electricity for months. We know a thing or two about that in Puerto Rico. And just like after hurricane Maria, people have died in Texas, water service has been shut off throughout the state, and life-saving medical treatments, such as dialysis for patients with renal failure, have been postponed, all due to the lack of electric power.
The main lesson, for both Texas and Puerto Rico, is perhaps (un)surprisingly similar. The infrastructure that was built fifty or sixty years ago needs to be upgraded to adapt to climate change. Perhaps, in 1960 it was not cost-effective to prepare the Texas grid to withstand a once-in-a-century freeze. Now, it is more like a 1 in every 3 years freeze, so the cost/benefit equation changes. And not only for electricity grids, but for all sorts of infrastructure (roads, dams, bridges, rail tracks, real estate located in flood zones and coastal areas, etc.) across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
In terms of the electric grid for Texas, that means weatherizing natural wells, pumps, and pipelines; installing weather-resistant controls and instruments; and increasing reserves of both natural gas and generation capacity. And, perhaps, reconsider the decision to run an isolated grid.
For Puerto Rico, it means we have to harden our transmission and distribution system to withstand stronger and more frequent storms; reconfigure the grid to avoid having high voltage lines cross the central mountain range; decentralize generation away from the coasts and rising sea levels; and increase real available generation reserves.
This last point is particularly important, given that we also run an isolated system (out of necessity, not by choice). Many people argue that we already have enough generation capacity on the island, and on paper, that is generally true. But many of those reserve units are Soviet-era relics and have been offline and largely unavailable during almost every year in living memory. They are probably so unreliable, that they would in all likelihood not be permitted to be connected to the grid in most countries.
The mess in Texas, then, is something to think about as we prepare to spend billions of dollars on new infrastructure, including a new electric grid.