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.
I have no doubt that the energy generated by wind turbines can not only power the heating system but generate additional current into the grid, otherwise I'm pretty sure we would have heard that in all the mentions of wind turbines operating in extreme temps in all those northern climes including above the Arctic Circle.
Here is one of the main questions for Texas' generators, regulators and consumers: which is cheaper per kWh to heat sufficiently to maintain generating operations at temps well below freezing for extended periods of time, miles of natural gas pipelines, associated facilities and gas fired generation plants or the individual wind turbines that feed directly into the power grid?
I've now read five or six articles on the Texas power issue. Plenty of fault to go around. This crisis does point out that a state or city can't put all of its eggs in one basket (haven't used that phrase in decades). For me, the big question is how much should a state and the state's rate-payers spend to ensure full power for a once in a ... decade, century? If its a decade, then the answer is easier. If it's once a century, and presuming that the globe is warming, then how likely are WE to pay for this type of redundancy and grid reliability. I think most of the US needs to look at grid reliability, from the risk of wildfires, floods, extraordinary cold weather, unanticipated heavy loads in summer, and, last but not least, cyber or other attacks. Before now, I never knew that Texas had a stand-alone grid and wasn't interconnected. They should re-think that.
San Jose, CA passed an ordinance last year forbidding the use on NG in any new construction. Of course it doesn't get very cold in San Jose, but a lot of folks in Texas and Louisiana are having to rely on NG for heating, sometimes just from a gas fireplace. Again - San Jose is putting all of its eggs in one basket.
I wondered when you would show up here, Steve. Good points, thoughts. We need a national review and investment in "the grid". Some portion of that federal funded hardening could be connecting the Texas grid to the other regional grids so power sharing is possible across systems. If Texas would then look at hardening their energy infrastructure based on what can be accomplished in the shortest time and at the best cost per kWh spread across all users, the cost might be bearable.
Texas is taking a public whipping now, and deservedly so, but this event is a wake up call for the entire country. What we are facing now and in the coming years are natural disasters at a scale and frequency that has never informed all types of infrastructure. With more electric demand certain in our future, the grid is a good place to start redesigning and hardening for what is coming. It won't be cheap but when the cost to the Texas economy is totaled from this event, it will be in the billions of dollars. Recall the old car commercial, "you can pay me now pay me later"? Well the "pay me later" may end up being more than we can afford.
The Insurance Council of Texas said insurers are expecting the winter storm of 2021 to become the costliest weather event in the history of the state, topping Hurricane Harvey.
there's a ton of money right now being invested in research on "grid reliability" but it's much more related to cyber security and foreign intervention. From all of the articles from CA and PG&E, seems like the higher risk is internal. Our national grid is at risk, which makes all of us at risk (Texas notwithstanding). As part of my work, I've dealt with the regional grid operators, and they are a pretty capable group. they are non-profits funded by the utilities within their jurisdiction. They focus on reliability of power to the consumers within their jurisdiction. Having said that, they clearly have no done a good job with PG&E in CA. But, that's another story.
Texas, operating independently, may not have been as careful as they should have been.
But, again, I completely agree with the "pay me now or pay me later" analogy, but, last year, who would have believed it if any of us ran around with out hair on fire shouting "you are all going to freeze to death next year"? While we consume daily stories about the glaciers melting, etc., here we are in a full-blown Artic Freeze that extends to the Gulf of Mexico. My biggest issue with Texas is that we all knew this was coming 10 days ago. What was done during those 10 days to prepare?
What was believable last year, and before, was global warming doesn't just produce heat waves, drought and wild fires but disruptions in global weather systems that can cause the type of arctic cold events we are still living through.
There were historically warm temps in places like Siberia. June 2020 in Siberia was the warmest in recorded history. Temps in the Arctic Circle reached a record-breaking 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The signs of global warming have been hard to miss for a few years now but there are still those who deny it.
The jet stream started to wobble early in the new year. Any dip in the stream can bring arctic air to the northern U.S. This one was just a bigger dip that allowed that Arctic air to plunge through the U.S. and into Mexico and the Gulf. Anyone want to wager that this is only a once in a lifetime occurrence? How many wake up calls must we receive before we take the threat seriously and start to do something?
We could tell Texas another was coming in 10 days and it wouldn't make any substantive difference.
Excerpt from Associated Press article:
Girding power generators against fierce winter weather is essential in colder climates. In Iowa, where wind farms supply 40% of the state’s electricity, windmills have been turning all week despite temperatures that dropped to minus 17 degrees in Des Moines. In Texas, grid officials say they can’t speak for why power generators here don’t do the same.
A decade ago, the report on the last Texas failure lists a number of ways to winterize an oil well or a natural gas device and the estimated costs: installing a cold-weather production unit ($23,000), collecting gas vented from an injection pump to supply a heater ($675), or building a fiberglass hut to enclose the production equipment ($1,500).
Winterizing 50,000 wells — just under a third of the number of total natural gas wells active in Texas — was estimated in 2011 to cost as much as $1.75 billion, a figure that would almost certainly be higher today due to inflation. By comparison, the Texas oil and natural gas industry paid $13.9 billion in taxes and royalties last year alone, according to figures from the Texas Oil & Gas Association.