Power grid lockdown, shortages
By Jessica Coleman
More questions than answers swirled around Jackson County, and the entire state of Texas, after power outages left millions of Texans, and thousands of Jackson County residents to weather sub-freezing temperatures without lights or heat.
Demands for answers soared across social media. What caused this? Who is to blame? Where is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) in all this? The disaster has left people in the dark, both literally and figuratively.
It could be months before all the facts come into view, and longer before they roll themselves into explanations, but it hasn’t stopped nearly everybody – politicians, activists, industry professionals - from piping up and lobbing blame at nearly everything. Some blame renewable forms of energy like wind and solar, citing frozen wind turbines. Others point to Texas’ privatized, isolated power grid that runs separately from the rest of the nation. Some even blamed the Green New Deal, a climate proposal of that has not passed, and wouldn’t be binding if it had. Political leaders fired blame at legislation, ERCOT, and each other.
What is known is that Texas’ main power grid, which is run by ERCOT and serves almost all of the state, was “seconds and minutes” from leaving Texas in the dark for months. What started as “rolling blackouts” to avoid largescale outage turned to “If your power is out, you may not have it back for days.”
Contributors to the failure were many. In November 2020, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. predicted that in extreme weather, Texas would pull 67 gigawatts of energy at its peak. The demand soared to 75 GW last week. ERCOT also underestimated plant outages. The organization prepared for 14 GW of power lost to plants going offline, but the real number was over 40 GW.
Natural gas made up the bulk of outages, which should be no surprise because Texas is a natural gas state. Most of the energy produced in Texas comes from natural gas, and demand rises in the winter, because as well as using electricity, many Texans heat their homes with gas heaters. While demand for natural gas rose, supply fell as equipment and pipelines froze. Coal providers also went offline in the sub-freezing temperatures, and South Texas Nuclear Generating Station, one of four nuclear plants in Texas, was out for two days.
Wind turbines also froze, prompting a viral image to circulate across social media of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine with captions like “Helicopters unfreeze turbines in Texas.” In truth, the 2014 image depicts a turbine in Arjeplog, Sweden. Even post-fact-check, though, the image is being spread and touted as evidence that wind energy is useless in cold weather, something experts say is false, pointing to the existence of turbines in some of the northernmost U.S. States, in Canada, and even Antarctica.
Since authorities and experts have established that no one form of power is responsible, Texans are still left with questions. What did cause this, and how do we avoid it in the future? The answer is a balancing act between cost and effectiveness. ERCOT does not require that power plants make preparations for deep freezes, leaving the decision in the hands of individual power companies.
In 2011, NERC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a report following a similar, if not as extreme, situation in Texas. Early that February ERCOT was forced into rolling blackouts to prevent overall grid failure. The 357-page Report was titled Outages and Curtailment during the Southwest Cold Weather Event on Feb. 1-5, 2011: Causes and Recommendations. It outlined in detail what caused the failure and what actions should be taken to prevent having to use rolling blackouts in the future. It also referenced a similar incident in 1989. The recommendations, however, were just that. They were not legislation or regulations. The decision to winterize equipment or not to is left in the hands of power companies. ERCOT does not require it, either. In fact, even before the incident, ERCOT’s plan to protect the grid was rolling blackouts- the exact thing the report attempted to avoid in the future.
ERCOT’s President and CEO said in a CNN interview that ERCOT had planned for rolling blackouts as the primary form of readiness.
“When ERCOT says it’s ready, what ERCOT needs to do is warn generators – warn transmission owners - that we see a big event happening, and we did that in the week before the storm,” said Magness. “We don’t own the power generation or the transmission lines. We’re more the traffic cop or the air traffic controller in the system. So, we were warning that we were seeing these conditions coming, and we knew that we may have to implement the rotating outages that ended up coming, and as we saw the supply get lower and the demand get higher on Sunday night, those rotating outages were what we implemented. That’s what we drill on and that’s what we prepare for. Unfortunately, those have terrible outcomes for people when they have to last a long time. That’s the preparation we did, to take that action effectively before we saw a much, much worse outcome.”
Most energy equipment in Texas is designed with summer heat in mind. Many structures lack enclosed spaces to allow heat to escape, preventing overheating in temperatures that can rise into the triple digits. Preparing for a freeze would be expensive. Power providers are left having to choose between preparing for a storm that may or may not come or saving that money and taking a risk. It is not yet known exactly what measures individual companies and generators took, but it is unlikely they violated any regulations because there just are not many regulations to violate.
As days, weeks, and months pass, a clearer picture should come into view regarding who prepared, who did not, and what can be done to avoid this in the future. For now, we know that over 50 Texans are dead from freezing, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other causes related to the weather, and that number is likely to grow as we learn more.