Policy Caused It

17 February 2021


Cogito Ergo Non Serviam

Texas Power Grid Fails, Millions Freezing


The central swath of the US is suffering from a blast of lingering cold air. In places like Minnesota, it's a cold, but not atypical, condition at 4 degrees Fahrenheit. In Dallas, the 24 degrees is warmer, but it hurts much more because Texans are not used to this kind of cold, which las persisted for four days now. The worst part is that the Texas power grid has failed, and millions are at home without heat. This is not the result of the weather but of poor planning and a weak regulatory system.

Unlike every other state in the union, Texas has its own power grid, save for some places up in the panhandle and in the eastern part of the state. Because it does not extend outside the state's boundaries, the federal rules and regulations do not apply. It also means that, when Texas has trouble, help is not coming any time soon. Trouble hit over the week-end.

The Washington Post explains, "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."

Naturally, Governor Greg Abbott blamed the wind turbines for the problem. The WaPo states, "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."

The result was a spike in the price of energy. While March futures for natural gas are selling at $3 per million BTUs, the spot price is $600. When this price rise occurred, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas [ERCOT] had their computers order providers to “shed load” (cut off power to customers) rather than deal with the higher prices.

The drivers of the system relate to short-term pricing and profitability rather than consistent delivery of electricity to consumers. Winterizing the grid did not happen because that was spending that addressed rare occurrences. The risk analysis was that there was no reason to winterize if winter is going to be mild. The gamble did not pay off.

Bill Magness, the top guy at ERCOT, said, "In 2018 we had some very cold winter times, but we saw the generation fleets performed very well through that. 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."

What incentive is there to do that? Looking is free, but actually addressing the problem will cost money, lots of it. With the current system of for-profit power-generation and no federal rules, there is no incentive. The state is going to have to mandate certain minimum protections, and that is going to rub up against Texan political culture.

The upshot is that this is probably going to happen again next winter, or the winter after.

© Copyright 2021 by The Kensington Review, Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Ubuntu Linux.

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