Opinion: After Power Outages End, Texas Must Debate Its Electric Independence


The word “reliability” is often used in the context of the electrical grid, and this week’s localized blackouts across much of Texas caused by freezing weather have raised many related questions. But too often, the word reliability is used too loosely in the context of energy. For a lobbyist defending the fossil fuel narrative, reliability means one thing. For a lobbyist defending the renewable energy narrative, it means another. For operators responsible for maintaining the technical day-to-day operation of the power grid, reliability has an additional meaning few people contemplate except during extreme weather events like this week.

Very rarely does a person describe reliability in the context of “fossil” and “renewable” energy narratives, but I will do so here in the context of finding solutions to make the power grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council. Texas, and therefore most of Texas is more resistant to extreme weather. Read: What’s behind the power outages in Texas? While there are many avenues to look for, here I point out three areas: the level of technology to heat power plants and the links to market policy and design; supply of natural gas; and ERCOT integration with the East or West interconnections. Weatherization Events in the past few days have indicated that various types of power generation became inoperative due to cold weather conditions, leading to ice build-up on components and instrumentation failure. Yes, some wind turbines froze (but not all of the 10,000+), some natural gas plants stopped working (but not all), and one nuclear reactor shut down (but not the other three). Each electricity generation technology has its pros and cons. We must resist narratives that focus on blaming one technology or another because it detracts from making the entire system reliable under all circumstances. We’ll learn more details about this week’s events over time, but we can ask a reasonable question: Could power plant operators have made investments to maintain the ability to operate in freezing and freezing temperatures? This was recommended after a similar situation in 2011. So why weren’t investments in HVAC? The answer to this second question generally boils down to a cost-benefit analysis of engineering improvements: How much does it cost and for what benefit? Imagine going to power plant owners and state regulators and telling them that we need to make sure all Texas power plants can operate at full capacity in the event of four days in a row of freezing temperatures with snow and freezing rain. You may have received the same response as if you had postulated the extreme rain event that was Hurricane Harvey. The answer probably would have been: “That event has never happened. Why prepare for an event that has never happened and might never happen? “or” We have an electricity market for that. “Markets are good at incentivizing a low average cost for wholesale electricity. They are not as good at protecting public health and safety during atypical events. Investments to increase energy Resilience of the power grid to extreme cold and flooding is probably in the domain of regulation and information disclosure. At the power plant technology level, we need to know what winter preparations were made, what worked and what didn’t It worked, and what Texas can learn from power plant owners in more northern climates Natural Gas Supply As in 2011, the natural gas supply and storage system could not supply enough natural gas to power plants to meet all heating demands The electricity grid and the natural gas pipeline network are interdependent: ga power plants Natural gas supplies require gas deliveries to generate electricity, and natural gas pipelines require electricity to pump gas. While this is a difficult problem to solve, it is not impossible. The state of Texas may fund studies to understand these gas and electricity interdependencies so that for given climate scenarios, heating types, and power plant generation fleets, we have estimates available of the maximum Texas heat and electricity supply. ERCOT integration Finally, why? This is the question that everyone outside of Texas asks when they learn that ERCOT, which covers 85% of Texas electricity, is not fully connected to either the western or eastern grids, the two grids more. large of North America. Depending on your narrative, you can start by reminding yourself of the Alamo to end Texas independence from federal regulation by avoiding interstate electricity trading. But at a time like this, the present matters more than the past. While ERCOT is connected to the other networks through a small number of direct current (DC) connections, we must promote a robust debate on the pros and cons of further integration of the ERCOT network with the rest of the country. On the downside, ERCOT is large enough to enact many policies and investments entirely within ERCOT, such as transmission lines, that do not cross state lines and therefore would not require the agreement of other state legislative and regulatory bodies. . On the bright side, smaller networks have less buffer to handle events like this week’s cold-induced power outage at ERCOT. This decision to integrate into the network should not be made in a month or in a year, but can be contemplated for several years. The best solutions are not obvious, and the answers will not be for the current network, but for the network in 20 years or more. The solutions depend on the ability to handle extreme events. There may be more connections, but still loose, with the other networks. For example, we could consider ERCOT as one “microgrid” among the others, just as the campus of the University of Texas at Austin is a microgrid within the city of Austin. Our campus is synchronized and connected to the larger grid, but there is generally no power flow across the “border” between campus and Austin. The connection and synchronization exist in case of emergency situations when the flow of energy, in one way or another, helps to maintain services. Another option could be for ERCOT to increase its DC link capacity. As we come out of the cold this week, we must avoid using simplified narratives about how one technology failed over another. The grid is more resistant because we have multiple types of power generation. We can seek greater resilience not only through new types of technologies, but also through new means of energy system cooperation. Now Read: Texas’ Ongoing Energy Disaster May Be Strongest Case Yet For Renewable Energy Plus: Texas Mayor Says Local Government ‘Owes You Nothing’ As Residents Go Days Without Heat And Electricity Carey W. King is a Research Scientist and Assistant Director of the Institute of Energy, University of Texas at Austin and the author of “The Economic Superorganism: Beyond Competing Narratives on Energy, Growth, and Policy.” Follow him on Twitter @CareyWKing.