Lots of misinformation and spin going around about the ongoing wave of power outages in Texas. The TLDR is that 1) the systems in Texas are not properly protected from winter weather that it should be able to handle; 2) it’s mostly a natural gas problem; 3) the fact that a nuclear plant is offline, and renewables (wind, solar) are also offline due to weather isn’t helping. Here are some details …
The Texas grid -managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT – has around 84 Gigawatts (GW) of power available to it; winter peak demand is expected to be 67GW, and the peak demand earlier this week hit 69GW according to ERCOT. On Tuesday 16GW of renewables and 30GW of “thermal” sources (mostly natural gas) were offline. The biggest problem is that the natural gas system wasn’t able to handle the weather.
Yes, it is cold – but we have had colder events in the past. My quick-look analysis shows this is maybe a 1 in 15 year event, in the southern part of the state 1 in 25 or so. For “lifeline” infrastructure like the power grid, it should be able to handle a 1 in 50 event with intermittent outages. In 2011 there was a cold weather event that caused widespread outages. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wrote a report about it with recommendations on how to address the problems. The report is pretty blunt, saying
The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side. … investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators. These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011. … However, in many cases, the needed fixes would not be unduly expensive.
This 2011 report also points out “On the gas side, producers experienced production declines in all of the recent prior cold weather events.” and “It is reasonable to assume from this pattern that the level of winterization put in place by producers is not capable of withstanding unusually cold temperatures.”
The report describes the causes and impacts of storms in 1989, 2003, 2011, and others. The 2011 report executive summary states:
This report makes a number of recommendations that the task force believes are both reasonable economically and which would substantially reduce the risk of blackouts and natural gas curtailments during the next extreme cold weather event that hits the Southwest.
Needless to say, this wasn’t done. Therefore it would seem that what happened in Texas this week was completely foreseeable, and not some freak of nature, but a direct consequence of natural gas providers and the electric utilities not taking recommended actions to protect the grid from infrequent – but not rare or terribly unusual – weather events.
Commentary: A lot of commentators and sources like those on Fox News with an ax to grind are saying that this is because the wind and solar sources are offline. True, that isn’t helping, and the increasing reliance of the grid on these sources will over time be problematic on a lot of levels. Likewise, CNN is actually blaming climate change! That too is a bunch of bull crap, even though anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem we need to deal with. But the simple truth is that the blame this time is firmly on natural gas providers being too cheap to winterize their equipment against an eminently foreseeable event. This can be attributed in part to deregulation, the way the capital markets work, and the prioritization of quarter over quarter profits against overall system reliability. There are other complexities here, such as the move to NG based electricity production to speed the shutdown of coal fired plants (a move pushed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is much more complex and less effective than policy planners want to admit). In short, this is an economics and political problem, not an engineering or mother-nature-sticking-it-to-us problem.
The bottom line is that for lifeline infrastructure like electrical power, the current system is unacceptable. The problem is, given the politics and economics, it isn’t going to get any better, and while not responsible for this particular disaster, the push for the “Green New Deal” and elimination of nuclear and fossil fuel based energy production will make it worse, just as the push to deregulate set up the current situation.
PS – for some great discussions about the energy industry, follow Art Berman’s twitter feed and if you’re in that world his blog and consulting resources are invaluable.