|Author | Elaine Haapanen, an energy expert in ISO-New England that has over a decade of experience in the industry.|
The record low temperatures experienced in February resulted in a massive increase in demand from the millions of Texans desperate to stay warm. Blackouts across Texas have been life-threatening for the nearly 4.5 million customers who were without electricity and were to blame for at least 24 deaths. Hundreds were taken to hospitals with carbon monoxide poisoning, and most of the cases were caused by people simply trying to meet basic human needs.
The event has provoked increasing outrage and demand for answers over how Texas could allow a grid failure of this magnitude, and pressing questions continue to mount.
Texas’ electricity grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has failed to communicate sufficiently throughout the entire electricity crisis. So, this information might be of help:
Ahead of the inclement weather, ERCOT estimated how much power it would need, but unfortunately, reality exceeded even its most extreme forecast. Not only were they not prepared for such an event, but there are also many details that strongly indicate gross negligence or an unwillingness to adequately prepare.
Weather forecasts accurately predicted extreme cold temperatures in Texas months in advance. Accredited meteorological research companies, such as AccuWeather, Weather Desk, Farmers’ Almanac, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecasted extreme cold temperatures, specifically for the month of February 2021.
A report by Weather Desk stated, “Although the first two months of the winter in 2021 are expected to rank in the top 10 warmest nationally, it forecasted February to be one of the coldest months since 2000.” They even ranked February 2021 as the 8th coldest since 1950.
Historical data has shown that this current extreme cold snap is not an isolated incident for Texas either. Although rare, the region has experienced even colder temperatures in the past. For example, in 1899 Houston temperatures have reached as low as 6 degrees and Dallas fell to -8 degrees and the last time Texas had been this cold was as recent as 1989, when Dallas fell to -2 degrees.
Past trends in ERCOT’s power grid also show that temperatures have consistently decreased in the month of February and have also experienced storm-related outages multiple times in the past decade, although not nearly as severe compared to 2021 conditions.
To put it simply, the Texas grid shut down because ERCOT did not see the need to prepare.
Texas takes immense pride in its energy independence, but unfortunately, Texas’ deregulatory philosophy has failed them. ERCOT’s lack of any state, regional, or reliability standards puts much less stringent rules on generators and system operators to be prepared for cold weather compared to other system operators in other regions, which include ISO-New England, MISO, and PJM, where extreme cold is more common.
The other electricity system operators have regulations in place to protect themselves from these kinds of events. ERCOT does not require or inspect for cold weatherproofing, and by not requiring generators to perform winterization steps it has also caused plenty of reliability issues in the past.
Other system operators also have adequate electricity supply in reserve margins to meet peak power demand in emergency situations. Although ERCOT does have a reserve margin, since their market is unregulated, the amount of supply they had in it was extremely low because companies do not want to shoulder the cost. In other words, if ERCOT had more electricity supply in their reserve margin, this crisis could have easily been avoided. Since a corporation did not want to pay for it, the people of Texas were subjected to the significant ramifications of an enormous forecasting error.
State leaders and conservative media outlets have attempted to shift the blame onto renewable energy, particularly solar generation, and wind farms, which has been a surprisingly successful tactic because the electricity industry is highly complex. The average person does not understand market data and even if they did, they would not even know where to find the information.
When the data is broken down, the information actually makes a great case for renewables, while also explaining that the underlying cause most responsible for the grid’s failure overall was not a reaction to the storm, it was in the preparation for the winter.
Historical data shows that wind traditionally contributes 24% of ERCOT’s annual electricity generation mix. Data on February 15th could have easily been misinterpreted as a drop-off in wind generation because it showed that it had contributed only 6% of the total generation mix that day. However, only 7%, or 6 gigawatts, of ERCOT’s forecasted winter capacity is expected to come from wind power sources across the state. And although it was only 6% of the mix that day, wind was able to generate 73 gigawatts. 66 gigawatts more than what was expected, despite having 16 gigawatts of renewables offline.
Also, the main reason why wind turbines were offline had nothing to do with the reliability of the turbines themselves — the viral photo of a frozen wind turbine that was being shared on the internet was not even a picture from Texas, it was taken in Sweden. Most turbines were actually offline because the private, secure internet that controls them lost power.
Almost all those16 gigawatts that were offline were wind generation, so that goes to show that solar held up well since it was able to generate 2% of electricity generation to the total generation mix, which is close to the normal amount.
Natural gas contributed 65% of the electricity generation mix on February 15th, which was the largest percentage. But that is to be expected. ERCOT relies on it to produce more; That is the way the grid is set up.
The percentage of generation is not where natural fossil-fuel sources (Natural Gas, Coal, and Nuclear) failed though. The forecast for peak demand was 67 gigawatts on Monday, which under normal conditions could have been possible since it is estimated they are able to generate 67 gigawatts of power. But on February 15th, due to the extreme temperatures and utility and grid infrastructure equipment not being properly weatherized, they did not even come close to meeting the maximum generation that was expected. Dan Woodfin, Senior Director of System Operations at ERCOT, reported that on Monday 45 gigawatts were offline. And on Tuesday 30 gigawatts were offline.
To put the situation in perspective, Greg Abbot, the Governor of Texas, blaming the electricity crisis on clean energy is like blaming a kid for not being able to put out a fire when the fire department did not show up.
The simple fact is that ERCOT does not ever depend on any meaningful amount of wind generation. If it did you would see power failures all the time because system-wide wind output drops to low levels routinely, even without extreme weather conditions. But these occurrences do not really correlate with demand patterns.
So, while it is not exactly desirable to have wind turbines drop production due to inclement conditions, it is not something that should affect the overall reliability of the system. There should always be something else to pick up the slack. This is the state of the system today, but even in a model where wind/solar and a few hours of batteries provide 70% of electricity overall and natural gas only provides 10% (and nuclear, hydro, geothermal, biomass, etc. provide the other 20%) you still end up with periods where wind/solar contribute very little to the electricity mix.
Conservatives often trash renewable resources for these reasons, but that hardly means they are useless. Their job right now for the foreseeable future is to lower fossil fuel consumption and their associated costs and emissions as much as possible. If their total production ends up getting knocked down a few days a year because of extreme weather events it does not make a difference at the end of the day. That will change in the future, as technology advances and we come to rely on renewable energy more.
Natural gas, coal, and nuclear power plants are there to provide power when necessary. There is supposed to be redundancy in planned resources so that some percentage of the plants can go down. But when you have a wide-reaching systemic condition that causes a significant amount of them to go down at the same time when demand is very high you end up with a broken system that is not working as it should. Natural gas and coal in the current system are supposed to pick up the slack, but they failed to do so sufficiently.
And that is why millions of people spent days freezing, in some cases literally to death. in Texas.
Vote for the green deal, energy regulation, more stringent energy policy or I promise you, eventually, you will likely find yourself in Texas’ shoes.