An unprepared for snowstorm knocked out 40 percent of the electrical grid’s generation. Inoperable gas plants, frozen wind turbines, and an out-of-commission nuclear plant turned a whiteout into a blackout for some-odd 4.4 million people in Texas.
By Tuesday morning, that number dropped to 4.1 million without power. The state’s energy grid regulator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), increased the load shed order to 18,500 megawatts (MW) — meaning that much consumption had to be knocked off the grid in order for the state’s capacity to exceed demand.
ERCOT keeps some capacity in reserve at all times, and that total floated between 1,000 and 4,000 MW throughout yesterday.
One MW can power between 500 and 650 homes.
ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said Tuesday that 45,000 MW of generation were unavailable due to over 70 plants not working.
Some across the state are facing intermittent blackouts while others have been entirely without power for well over 24 hours straight.
The cause of such a prolonged emergency, as overnight temperatures dropped below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, was threefold.
First, the winter weather froze turbines out in West Texas bringing their generation down less than a fifth of their 25,000 MW capacity. While wind’s generation has exceeded ERCOT forecasts, it remains significantly lower than its total capacity potential. Solar is also underperforming both its capacity and projections during the freeze.
Second, an estimated 27,000 MW of natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy disappeared from the grid due to the freeze making plants inoperable. ERCOT has been less than forthright about how many were rendered inoperable and how much generation that has cost the state.
Third, Texas has experienced power emergencies before, namely during the summer’s sweltering heat. But what’s different here is that the distance between a “comfortable” temperature inside to the temperature outside is about two times greater.
In the summer, that difference is about 30 degrees. Now, with overnight temperatures inching toward 0 degrees, that difference is about 60 degrees.
That means the grid has to work twice as hard to meet demand.
Wholesale electricity prices were floating around $9,000 per megawatt-hour (MWh) on Tuesday morning. Normally, they are between $30 and $50 per MWh.
As demand increases and supply decreases, price increases — basic economics at play to a frigid effect.
Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT, said Tuesday morning, “The number of controlled outages we have to do remains high. We are optimistic that we will be able to reduce the number throughout the day.”
In various places throughout the state, such as Fort Worth and the suburban communities north of Austin, the problems were compounded by water treatment plants losing power, resulting in a boil notice.
Electricity supply problems born of the weather even impacted parts of Texas not under ERCOT oversight.
Lubbock — which is powered by the Southwest Power Pool that covers Kansas, most of Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, and small portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico — faced rolling blackouts Monday evening.
Those blackouts have not generally become “controlled,” or prolonged, like with ERCOT.
And further compounding all this is that electricity, when generated, cannot be stored in any meaningful quantity. It’s “use it or lose it.”
The situation cannot improve until the lost capacity comes back online. Until then, Texans are up a frozen creek without a paddle — or a pickaxe.
Despite multiple attempts, ERCOT has not returned any request for clarification on the situation.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.