The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather

The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather

Republicans blame frozen wind turbines, but the problem was much bigger than that

By Will Englund  Feb. 16, 2021  washingtonpost.com

When it gets really cold, it can be hard to produce electricity, as customers in Texas and neighboring states are finding out. But it’s not impossible. Operators in Alaska, Canada, Maine, Norway and Siberia do it all the time.

What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.

It’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices,” said Matt Breidert, a portfolio manager at a firm called TortoiseEcofin.

And yet the temporary train wreck of that market Monday and Tuesday has seen the wholesale price of electricity in Houston go from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000. Meanwhile, 4 million Texas households have been without power.

One utility company, Griddy, which sells power at wholesale rates to retail customers without locking in a price in advance, told its patrons Tuesday to find another provider before they get socked with tremendous bills.

The widespread failure in Texas and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the face of a winter cold snap shines a light on what some see as the derelict state of America’s power infrastructure, a mirror reflection of the chaos that struck California last summer.

Edward Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the disinvestment in electricity production reminds him of the last years of the Soviet Union, or of the oil sector today in Venezuela.

“They hate it when I say that,” he said.

The immediate question facing the Texas power sector is whether its participants are willing to pay for the sort of winterization measures that are common farther north, even for a once-in-a-decade spell of weather.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called Tuesday for reform of the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.

“Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather,” he said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”

He said he would work with the legislature to find ways to “ensure that our state never experiences power outages like this again.”

The Republican speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan, announced immediate hearings into “what went wrong.”

Fossil fuel groups and their Republican allies blamed the power failures on frozen wind turbines and warned against the supposed dangers of alternative power sources. Some turbines did in fact freeze — though Greenland and other northern outposts are able to keep theirs going through the winter.

But wind accounts for just 10 percent of the power in Texas generated during the winter. And the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.

As the cold hit, demand for electricity soared past the mark that ERCOT had figured would be the maximum needed. But at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand.

In the single-digit temperatures, pipelines froze up because there was some moisture in the gas. Pumps slowed. Diesel engines to power the pumps refused to start. One power plant after another went offline. Even a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment.

“At a time when the need is the greatest it’s ever been, it’s a strain on the system like we’ve never seen,” said Tom Seng, director of the School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce at the University of Tulsa.

Throughout the Southwest, he said, there has been a scramble for gas as sources have gone offline. Most surplus gas is stored underground, he said, and bringing it to the surface becomes more and more difficult in such prolonged low temperatures. March futures for natural gas are selling for $3 per million BTUs in Oklahoma, he said, but the spot price hit $600 over the weekend.

In Texas, production of natural gas Tuesday fell 6 billion to 7 billion cubic feet per day from earlier in the month, Anne Swedberg Robba, head of American gas and power analytics for S&P Global Platts, wrote in an email. Nationally, production has dropped by about 14 percent.

“But this is not the first time we’ve had this issue in Texas,” said Hirs, of the University of Houston.

There was a severe cold spell in the Southwest in 2011, and frigid weather in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2010. A study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. of the 2011 event, which also led to widespread blackouts for much the same reasons, found that “the massive amount of generator failures that were experienced raises the question whether it would have been helpful to increase reserve levels going into the event. This action would have brought more units online earlier, might have prevented some of the freezing problems the generators experienced, and could have exposed operational problems in time to implement corrections before the units were needed to meet customer demand.”On Tuesday, both agencies announced that they would now investigate the causes of this year’s failure.

Texas shares with California an unwillingness to compensate generation companies for maintenance, Hirs said, unlike most of the rest of the country. He said that what happened to California in the heat last summer has now been reflected in Texas’s winter.

“Both Texas and California have failed spectacularly this year,” he said. “There’s a tremendous human cost. People died in California. People died in Texas.”

Texas is unique among the states in having a grid all its own that is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. That has prevented Texas from importing much electricity as its power plants went down, but Hirs said that the cold is so widespread across the heart of the nation that no one has any electricity to spare anyway.

Bill Magness, chief executive of ERCOT, said in an interview with the WFAA TV station in Dallas that he thought the state grid was better prepared for winter than it once was.

“In 2018 we had some very cold winter times, but we saw the generation fleets performed very well through that,” he said. “I think we really made some progress getting ready for these winter times. And this storm has been extraordinary. We are seeing a whole lot of units coming off for reasons that have to do with the weather, so certainly winterization is something that constantly needs to be looked at.”

Although temporary, one factor that may have hurt was that the sudden high wholesale price of electricity may have caused ERCOT’s computers to order companies to “shed load” — that is, cut off customers — rather than deal with the spike in costs.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission ordered ERCOT on Monday to allow for those high prices. They almost certainly will not last long, as temperatures are already rising. The cost of that electricity, at least in the short run, probably will fall most heavily on the retail utilities.

 

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A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids

Systems are designed to handle spikes in demand, but the wild and unpredictable weather linked to global warming will very likely push grids beyond their limits.

By Brad Plumer Published Feb. 16, 2021  nytimes.com

Huge winter storms plunged large parts of the central and southern United States into an energy crisis this week, with frigid blasts of Arctic weather crippling electric grids and leaving millions of Americans without power amid dangerously cold temperatures.

The grid failures were most severe in Texas, where more than four million people woke up Tuesday morning to rolling blackouts. Separate regional grids in the Southwest and Midwest also faced serious strain. As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 23 people nationwide had died in the storm or its aftermath.

Analysts have begun to identify key factors behind the grid failures in Texas. Record-breaking cold weather spurred residents to crank up their electric heaters and pushed power demand beyond the worst-case scenarios that grid operators had planned for. At the same time, a large fraction of the state’s gas-fired power plants were knocked offline amid icy conditions, with some plants suffering fuel shortages as natural gas demand spiked. Many of Texas’ wind turbines also froze and stopped working.

The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country. Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions — as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.

While scientists are still analyzing what role human-caused climate change may have ... in this week’s winter storms, it is clear that global warming poses a barrage of additional threats to power systems nationwide, including fiercer heat waves and water shortages.

Measures that could help make electric grids more robust — such as fortifying power plants against extreme weather, or installing more backup power sources — could prove expensive. But as Texas shows, blackouts can be extremely costly, too. And, experts said, unless grid planners start planning for increasingly wild and unpredictable climate conditions, grid failures will happen again and again.

“It’s essentially a question of how much insurance you want to buy,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University. “What makes this problem even harder is that we’re now in a world where, especially with climate change, the past is no longer a good guide to the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”

A System Pushed to the Limit

Texas’ main electric grid, which largely operates independently from the rest of the country, has been built with the state’s most common weather extremes in mind: soaring summer temperatures that cause millions of Texans to turn up their air-conditioners all at once.

While freezing weather is rarer, grid operators in Texas have also long known that electricity demand can spike in the winter, particularly after damaging cold snaps in 2011 and 2018. But this week’s winter storms, which buried the state in snow and ice, and led to record-cold temperatures, surpassed all expectations — and pushed the grid to its breaking point.

Texas’ grid operators had anticipated that, in the worst case, the state would use 67 gigawatts of electricity during the winter peak. But by Sunday evening, power demand had surged past that level. As temperatures dropped, many homes were relying on older, inefficient electric heaters that consume more power.

The problems compounded from there, with frigid weather on Monday disabling power plants with capacity totaling more than 30 gigawatts. The vast majority of those failures occurred at thermal power plants, like natural gas generators, as plummeting temperatures paralyzed plant equipment and soaring demand for natural gas left some plants struggling to obtain sufficient fuel. A number of the state’s power plants were also offline for scheduled maintenance in preparation for the summer peak.

The state’s fleet of wind farms also lost up to 4.5 gigawatts of capacity at times, as many turbines stopped working in cold and icy conditions, though this was a smaller part of the problem.

In essence, experts said, an electric grid optimized to deliver huge quantities of power on the hottest days of the year was caught unprepared when temperatures plummeted.

While analysts are still working to untangle all of the reasons behind Texas’ grid failures, some have also wondered whether the unique way the state manages its largely deregulated electricity system may have played a role. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Texas decided against paying energy producers to hold a fixed number of backup power plants in reserve, instead letting market forces dictate what happens on the grid.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an emergency reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the flow of power in the state, saying its performance had been “anything but reliable” over the previous 48 hours.

‘A Difficult Balancing Act’

In theory, experts said, there are technical solutions that can avert such problems.

Wind turbines can be equipped with heaters and other devices so that they can operate in icy conditions — as is often done in the upper Midwest, where cold weather is more common. Gas plants can be built to store oil on-site and switch over to burning the fuel if needed, as is often done in the Northeast, where natural gas shortages are common. Grid regulators can design markets that pay extra to keep a larger fleet of backup power plants in reserve in case of emergencies, as is done in the Mid-Atlantic.

But these solutions all cost money, and grid operators are often wary of forcing consumers to pay extra for safeguards.

“Building in resilience often comes at a cost, and there’s a risk of both underpaying but also of overpaying,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”

In the months ahead, as Texas grid operators and policymakers investigate this week’s blackouts, they will likely explore how the grid might be bolstered to handle extremely cold weather. Some possible ideas include: Building more connections between Texas and other states to balance electricity supplies, a move the state has long resisted; encouraging homeowners to install battery backup systems; or keeping additional power plants in reserve.

The search for answers will be complicated by climate change. Over all, the state is getting warmer as global temperatures rise, and cold-weather extremes are, on average, becoming less common over time.

But some climate scientists have also suggested that global warming could, paradoxically, bring more unusually fierce winter storms. Some research indicates that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, the high-level air current that circles the northern latitudes and usually holds back the frigid polar vortex. This can allow cold air to periodically escape to the South, resulting in episodes of bitter cold in places that rarely get nipped by frost.

But this remains an active area of debate among climate scientists, with some experts less certain that polar vortex disruptions are becoming more frequent, making it even trickier for electricity planners to anticipate the dangers ahead.

All over the country, utilities and grid operators are confronting similar questions, as climate change threatens to intensify heat waves, floods, water shortages and other calamities, all of which could create novel risks for the nation’s electricity systems. Adapting to those risks could carry a hefty price tag: One recent study found that the Southeast alone may need 35 percent more electric capacity by 2050 simply to deal with the known hazards of climate change.

And the task of building resilience is becoming increasingly urgent. Many policymakers are promoting electric cars and electric heating as a way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But as more of the nation’s economy depends on reliable flows of electricity, the cost of blackouts will become ever more dire.

“This is going to be a significant challenge,” said Emily Grubert, an infrastructure expert at Georgia Tech. “We need to decarbonize our power systems so that climate change doesn’t keep getting worse, but we also need to adapt to changing conditions at the same time. And the latter alone is going to be very costly. We can already see that the systems we have today aren’t handling this very well.”

 

 

I’m not going into the politics of this, but methinks there is a bit of asscovering in the conflicting press releases.  I have to work in the realm of reality, so the data is what I need.  I’ve been looking over ERCOT’s website to find what I can to understand what is happening. I found this graph that shows the past few days in Texas.  The granularity is not that great, but when you look at the real time data it makes sense.  Basically, the wind generation (22% of supply) cratered at the onset of the storm.  The problem occurred when the non renewables did not, or could not ramp up.  The questions to ask are thus:  Were the traditional supplies notified to be prepared to ramp up?  If so, did they fail to prepare?  Or had the capacity been shuttered?  

Yes, there are freeze offs and frozen coal, but it’s actually easy to prepare for a ramp up if you plan for it.  Only the gas plants on isolated lines and coal plants that are decommissioning boilers cannot ramp up quickly.  We need to look at all factors to see where the failures occurred.  With any power source that is dependent on weather conditions, there have to be backups.  And those backups have to be robust and readily available.  

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Of all the articles I’ve read, this one most closely matches what the real time data shows from ERCOT.  We need to find out why we were not prepared.  However, loosing 25% of your supply overnight is a steep hurdle to climb.  

There is a great article in the Wall Street Journal about this.  Below are two graphs.  In short wind between 2/7 and 2/11 wind's share of total generation dropped from 42% to 8%.  Gas and coal took up the slack. Gas generation fell about 1/3 during the coldest time but still was two to three times higher than normal. Gas nearly made up the shortfall but it was not enough to cover the rising demand.

I had to add the second graph as a file.  Could not find a way to copy and paste

Attachments:

The one overarching reason for the power problems in Texas is the failure to require all forms of generation to be hardened against extreme weather events.  If wind turbines in Texas had been required to have carbon fiber blades and heating systems, it is highly likely none would have gone out of service.  Wind turbines in places like Siberia, Canada, Sweden and, yes, the American Midwest function down to as low as ~22 degrees below zero.

Why Wind Turbines In Cold Climates Don’t Freeze: De-Icing And Carbon Fiber

 

Scott Carpenter Senior Contributor  forbes.com  Feb 16, 2021

 

The failure of roughly half of the wind turbines in Texas earlier this week isn’t the biggest cause of a power shortage crisis that has left one-third of Texans without power in historic freezing conditions.

Frozen infrastructure at gas and coal power stations, such as pipelines, are the main culprit. Of the total amount of power that suffered outages, wind accounted for only some 13%, a far smaller share than accounted for by coal, gas and nuclear plants.

Still, wind power is a major resource in Texas: it supplied 23% of the state’s electricity in 2020, second only to the 40% share by natural gas, and had been producing a larger share than normal before the widespread outages. Wind has also attracted an outsize share of blame for the Texas fiasco, including a Wall Street Journal editorial that attacked its susceptibility to the freezing weather as another sign of its unreliability. 

So it’s fair to ask: why don’t wind turbines fail all the time in colder climates, such as Canada, Sweden or the American Midwest? 

The answer, in short, is that turbines in colder places are typically equipped with de-icing and other tools, such as built-in heating. In Texas, where the weather is almost never this cold, they usually are not. 

“Cold weather kits can keep [wind turbines] operating when temperatures plunge. This is the norm in colder states and in Europe,” said Samuel Brock, a spokesman for the American Clean Power Association. “Historically in Texas, given the warm climate, it hasn’t been necessary.”

In Canada, where wind turbines can experience icing up to 20% of the time in winter months, special “cold weather packages” are installed to provide heating to turbine components such as the gearbox, yaw and pitch motors and battery, according to the Canadian government. This can allow them to operate in temperatures down to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 Celsius). 

To prevent icing on rotor blades — which cause the blades to catch air less efficiently and to generate less power — heating and water-resistant coatings are used.

One Swedish company, Skellefteå Kraft, which has experimented with operating wind turbines in the Arctic, coats turbine blades with thin layers of carbon fiber which are then heated to prevent ice from forming. Another method used by the company is to circulate hot air inside the blades. 

Major wind turbine manufacturers, such as General Electric GE -2.2% or Denmark's Vestas, regularly equip their turbines with such cold weather gear.

Yes, you can heat the blades.  This requires energy.  Only if the energy produced by the windmill is greater than that required to keep the blades ice free will this work.  It is my understanding that the diminished winds during the winter in Texas makes this a net zero process.  That may not be the same in other locations.  This is another question that needs to be addressed in the inquiry.  

Those wind turbines in Siberia, Canada, Sweden and the American Midwest do not seem to have a problem generating the power for heating systems.  Of course, Texas appears to have numerous problems that other states or countries do not share when it comes to the reliability of the electric grid.  It's not a lack of available technology, it's a willful decision to ignore it.  After 2011, there is no acceptable excuse although many are being attempted.

The seasonal wind currents seem to work well there.  The currents off the Caprock diminish in winter.  If the turning windmills produce more wattage than the heaters consume, then you have a positive energy equation.  You can take that number and calculate the economic viability.  Whatever the number, the net output will be less than normal because of the wattage lost to heating. If the wattage needed to de ice the blades is equal to or greater than the output, then you have a net zero energy equation.  It’s basic addition and subtraction.  No politics, no theory, no posturing.  

My guess is heaters will make the wind mills less cost competitive.  Other questions to be asked are:

1.  What percentage of thermal plants that went off line are not normally used in the winter.

2.  What percentage of thermal plants had gas supply issues?

3.  Were any of those gas supply issues due to the switch to electric compressor station (vs natural gas) -- Apparently a clean energy act reequriement.

4.  What percentage of gas supply issues were due to freeze off at the well.

5.  What percentage of gas supply issues were due to sales out of the state.

Further note:  ERCOT has released most of the utilities from constraints this morning.

I am currently paying 8.5 cents per kwh. My coop has almost all the customers on line

Austin power has five rates -- 9.31 cents for 1500 to 2500 kwh and 10.814 cents for kwh above that and still has over 70,00 meters off line due to their own issues.

The TV interviews with their general manager do not make me confident that they will resolve the issue soon. 

Austin water also lost their largest water plant yesterday due to power issues.  Whole city is under a boil water alert (second in three years). 

On top of this the city wants to ban all natural gas. I am glad I live outside of the city limits.

Hardening all forms of power generation make them more expensive....but more reliable.  Texas has sacrificed reliability for marginally cheaper electric rates.  How about a comparison of the cost to harden a generation source per kWh generated?  What source would be expected to have the lowest?  Although that would be an interesting comparison, the fact is that all sources need to be hardened and consumers: industrial, commercial and residential will have to pay for it in one way or another.  Will that happen before the next extreme weather event?  Will it happen at all? 

It would be a mistake for the city to ban natural gas....unless there is a cheaper alternative.  That's another debate that many Texans will be having going forward.  After the added cost to harden a source, which will be cheaper?

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