EnergyIssuesHere’s A Look at What Transpired the Week Texas Blacked Out as ERCOT Investigations Begin

Here's an overview of what's come to light since Texas went dark.
February 24, 2021
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Though the weekend’s warm weather signaled a reprieve from last week’s despair, the millions left without water and heat for days delivered a reputational blow to the state whose calling card is its prolific energy supply.

Most across the state have since regained power, but boil notices lingered. About two-dozen deaths have been directly attributed to the blackouts. Blame for the catastrophe is already pointed in different directions and the post hoc political fight is gestating.

With legislative hearings set for this week and executive branch investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) already underway, questions about how the situation escalated in the first place are compounding. 

Going into this week, here’s a recap of the debacle.

Cold Snap Causes Demand Spike and Supply Shortage

The Texan Tumbler

The cold snap that moved in intensified the stress on Texas generators and the grid as thermostats turned up the heat. The grid faced record winter demand during this time, and that stress came to a head around 1:30 a.m. when demand very nearly exceeded the available supply. ERCOT issued an order to utility companies to establish rotating blackouts across the state, hoping to alleviate the stress on the grid.

Electricity cannot be stored for later use in any meaningful quantity. Once it is generated, whether by thermal or turbine generation, it must be used or lost.

In an instant, over 10,000 megawatts (MW) fell off the grid. One MW can power between 500 and 650 homes. Many of those households did not regain power until Thursday morning.

The cold weather did not just drive-up consumer’s demand, it cut short the supply as well.

Wind turbines in West Texas froze, either becoming entirely inoperable or losing significant amounts of generation efficiency. At times during its daily peak, wind generation turned out less than a fifth of its 25,000 MW capacity — and at other times produced even less than that.

At one point on Wednesday, solar, which accounts for a far lower percentage of the state’s capacity, even outpaced wind in terms of raw generation.

It is no small part of this episode that wind, which usually accounts for 20 percent of the grid’s capacity, fell off the wagon to such a degree. But that was not the only cause for the supply woes.

A unit in south Texas’ baseload nuclear plant tripped off mid-Monday morning. The cause was a frozen feedwater system required to produce the steam necessary to jumpstart the generation process. That unit only just returned to full production on Friday.

Thermal generation — mainly powered by coal and natural gas — also faltered to varying degrees throughout the crisis. Over 180 power plants went out of commission at different times, most of which were thermal generators. At one point, about 10 percent of the state’s power plants were offline.

Natural gas, which accounts for half of the grid’s electricity generation, went from generating 44,000 MW (at the time, 65 percent of generation) just before the blackouts to a low point of 27,000 MW on Tuesday.

Still, natural gas accounted for the lions’ share of the generation throughout the blackouts.

But some typical natural gas generation did disappear due to a multitude of issues. There were some instances of cold weather directly affecting its electricity generation, but more common was the frigid temperatures affecting the ability of producers to pull natural gas out of the ground at wellheads.

This was compounded by ERCOT’s blackouts turning off the electricity necessary to power the extraction machines at the wellheads.

Comparisons to the California rolling blackouts of 2020 have been thrown around, often in a taunting manner. Texas weathered the same heat waves that knocked California’s lights out. But a large difference between California’s heat-induced woes and Texas’ cold-induced struggle was the temperature difference.

The distance between 110 degrees and a “comfortable” temperature is lower than that of 10 degrees and a “comfortable” temperature. To meet that need required the grid, its generators, and all the infrastructure in between to work roughly twice as hard — which takes energy and costs money.

Prior to the emergency beginning February 15, ERCOT requested from the Department of Energy (DOE) temporary reprieve from emissions caps in order to add more supply to the grid to meet demand. The DOE responded by granting the use of additional generating units and suspended emissions limits under certain conditions.

Those conditions were that the emissions caps could be waived while the state remained under a level two or three emergency, that the electricity be sold no lower than $1,500 megawatt-hour (MWh), and that all other options were exhausted.

The order stated further, “To minimize adverse environmental impacts, this Order limits operation of dispatched units to the times and within the parameters determined by ERCOT for reliability purposes.”

Criticism of the DOE, pointed specifically at President Joe Biden, claims that this was an outright denial of the request to temporarily eliminate the caps. While it didn’t eliminate them carte blanche, during nearly the entirety of Texas’ electricity supply emergency, the caps were waived as the stipulations were met.

If the blame falls on anyone regarding this waiver, it’s ERCOT’s delay to implement the conditions necessary to trigger it — not the DOE which approved the request the same day it was received.

Reactions from State Officials

Texas’ infrastructure — whether it be roads, power plants, windmills, or pipelines — is not “winterized” enough to handle the combination of extreme and prolonged temperatures. The reason it hasn’t is a matter of a cost-benefit analysis.

Texas rarely faces such weather events — back in 2011, it faced a similar cold spell that only yielded hours-long blackouts, not days-long. To date, it hasn’t been worth the large cost necessary to effectively “winterize” infrastructure. After this, that analysis may change, but it will cost a pretty penny to carry out.

Some in Texas believe the state should mandate winterization after this episode — among them is Governor Greg Abbott, who added it to his list of emergency items. It is his intention for the state to finance, at least partially, the winterization.

State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) has already filed a bill to mandate just that.

While that is not yet a requirement, it is something the state analyzes. A report filed in mid-January with the Public Utility Commission (PUC) declared 42 power plants or generators “deficient” to some degree in their winter preparedness.

In its 2020 Operations Report and Plan submitted to the PUC on January 15, ERCOT concluded, “[W]ith a normal outage rate and under expected weather conditions, ERCOT should have sufficient generation capacity to serve forecasted peak demand.”

That forecast, clearly, was not exhaustively sufficient to compensate for the series of problems that unfolded last week.

Some Texans received exorbitant utility bills for usage during the crisis when wholesale prices soared. Texans facing those increases were those whose electricity plans were tied directly to the wholesale prices on the market — but most are on a flat charge or fixed-rate per kilowatt-hour plans.

Nonetheless, Governor Abbott convened a conference call with certain members of the Texas legislature to discuss ways to alleviate the massive utility bills that some face.

Abbott stated of the conversation, “We have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages. We are moving quickly to alleviate this problem and will continue to work collaboratively throughout this week on solutions to help Texas families and ensure they do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills.”

Another focal point of conflict is over the sources of energy on which Texas relies. For years, Texas officials touted the state’s broad array of energy supply — obviously leading in fossil fuel production, but also wind generation and a substantial nuclear energy profile.

Texas has prioritized this energy diversification — establishing a “Renewable Generation Requirement” back in 1999 to mandate 5,880 MW of generation by 2015. In 2005, that threshold was increased to 10,000 MW, which, notably, is substantially less than the 25,000 MW to 30,000 MW available capacity in Texas.

But that cushion is there and along with the Production Tax Credit (PTC) — a federal credit worth 1.2 cents per kilowatt-hour produced — provides a substantial safety net to renewable energy developers to which their fossil fuel competition is not privy.

Based on 2019 production, the PTC was worth $1 billion that year for renewable generators.

During the last decade, federal renewable subsidies in Texas totaled $71.2 billion — more than federal subsidies given to fossil fuel producers combined. Legislation by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) would offset the market “price distortion” caused by renewable subsidies.

The argument is that energy from renewables is so cheap because of the cost cushion provided by the state and federal government, and thus “unfairly” props up those generators at the expense of the others.

Critics of renewables say it is ill-advised to draw such a large portion of the electricity baseload from methods beholden to the whims of weather.

On Fox News anchor Sean Hannity’s show, Abbott criticized renewables’ contribution to the blackouts, stating, “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”

A salient political punching bag among Abbott’s base, the Green New Deal aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2030 by weaning the country off its fossil fuel use.

While the proposal is a far cry from reality, Texas has increasingly prioritized renewables — so much so that Abbott himself was the 2021 recipient of the Tri Global Energy Wind Leadership Award which “recognizes commitment to wind development and to the people who rely on wind projects to support their families and communities.”

The development of wind and natural gas has come largely at the expense of coal generation — widely viewed as an inferior source in terms of both efficiency and emissions.

During the last decade, Texas lost 3,000 MW of more traditional energy production, of which were three coal plants.

The diversification of Texas’ energy portfolio has led to low costs per kilowatt-hour at the expense, some have argued, of its reliability.

Energy, in whatever form, is only as valuable as its accessibility and dependability when one most needs it. In this, virtually every energy source failed to some degree during the snowstorm that brought the entire State of Texas to its knees.

And as state officials convene to surely excoriate ERCOT as the sacrificial lamb, it is clear that the problems which culminated in last week’s turmoil extend beyond the grid regulator.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

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.