EnergyTexas Energy Infrastructure, Sources Scrutinized as State Weathers Day 3 of Blackouts

Blame for Texas' blackouts has heated up the further down the temperature dropped and investigations into its causes will unfold in the months ahead.
February 17, 2021
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Sliding into the third day of widespread blackouts across Texas, millions of people remain without some combination of electricity, heat, or water. State leaders and its grid regulator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), are scrambling to fashion any stopgap measure within arms’ reach.

But largely, the best answer ERCOT and the utility providers can offer is to point to the thaw…whenever that may come.

On the supply end, natural gas has frozen in the pipes, water necessary to jumpstart generation plants has frozen or cannot be delivered due to road conditions, and wind turbines have frozen.

According to ERCOT, some 70-odd power plants are out-of-commission — most of which are fossil fuel-based. The state has about 680 plants across the state, so roughly 10 percent of those haven’t been supplying the grid with electricity to meet sky-high demand.

In total, 168 have idled at one point or another during this. Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, part of the body that regulates the state’s fossil fuel production, told The Texan about the natural gas deficiencies, “[E]very natural gas plant online at the start of this crisis stayed online.”

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“While there have been some issues with natural gas production during this storm, much of that has to do with ERCOT cutting off power to well sites in West Texas. ERCOT assumed the state would have 67GW from thermal sources (gas & coal), but ended up only being able to get 43GW online,” said Christian.

This indicates a hiccup at the supply origin rather than the plants themselves.

As of Wednesday morning, 46,000 megawatts (MW) of usual production was unavailable. About 60 percent of that came from out-of-commission thermal generators such as coal and natural gas plants, while the other 40 percent came from inoperable wind and solar generators.

Wind turbines have been producing electricity above projections but are still not producing at one-fifth of its 25,000 MW capacity. In fact, as of 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, it had dipped below 1,000 MW production but has since climbed back up.

Just from the demand side of things, the Texas freeze is more difficult for the grid to handle because the distance between the outside temperature and a “comfortable” indoor temperature is about double what it is during summer heat waves.

Thus, the grid, its generators, and all the infrastructure in between has to work twice as hard to meet their customers’ needs. That, on top of supply failures, has created the frigid mess in which Texas now shivers.

Governor Greg Abbott reacted by establishing ERCOT reform as the latest issue among his emergency items for the legislative session. On Tuesday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan called for an investigative committee hearing that will be held on February 25. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick indicated the Senate would do so as well, but hasn’t set a hearing date yet.

Daniel Cohan — an energy and environment professor at Rice University — told The Texan, “This is a time where all of our sources of electricity underperformed and came up short of what we had expected, just as we have record amounts of power demand.”

“But, far and away the biggest story behind this is the collapse of natural gas electricity that we were counting on. This reveals the mutual vulnerabilities of our gas and power systems,” he added.

The gas plants that became idle did so due to a lack of natural gas supply to their plants. This points to the infrastructural delivery hiccup Christian elucidated.

“This seems to be less a problem with our individual natural gas plants, and more with our natural gas supply system. The supply of each of these [energy sources] is dependent on each other, so we’re seeing an interdependency problem as demand surges,” Cahan stated.

Jason Isaac, director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Life:Powered project, told The Texan, “Texans are used to being asked to conserve power — but usually it’s in the heat of the summer, not during the winter. This week’s rolling blackouts should be a wakeup call that we’ve put too many eggs in the renewable basket.”

Isaac points to the state’s large investment over the previous decade in wind and solar power coming at a cost to fossil fuel development.

“With over half of our wind turbines frozen solid and the rest projected to bottom out at 2.5 percent of installed capacity [Monday night], the reason for these rolling blackouts is clear. Reliable natural gas generators can ramp up to meet most of the electricity demand, but with such a big gap in wind production, there’s only so much they can do.”

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), as the temperature dropped and demand jumped, wind’s share of electricity generation, especially, waned on Monday but has regained some ground since. Natural gas generation dropped, too, but maintained the vast majority of the total.

As of these EIA numbers, natural gas’ generation is about 28,000 MW while coal is supplying about 7,000 MW and nuclear about 3,700 MW. Wind is producing about 2,900 MW and solar had dropped off the board entirely — which is normal considering the last point in time measured here was overnight.

But across the board, every source’s generation decreased as the temperatures dropped, partially due to the broad load shedding countenanced by ERCOT.

The drop in nuclear generation on Monday came when one of two units at the south Texas facility stopped working.

Isaac added, “It’s unfortunate Texas wasn’t better prepared for this. We’ve closed about 3,000 MW of reliable electricity generation over the past few years, which can’t just be replaced with wind turbines and solar panels because those don’t always work.”

Among those 3,000 MW that were eliminated were three coal plants that closed in the last decade. The state’s task ahead in Isaac’s eyes amounts to restoring and building upon fossil fuel-type generation.

“Our elected leaders should be committed to providing reliable electricity instead of scoring political points by giving tax breaks to big (often foreign) unreliable renewable energy companies that weaken our electric grid and increase our tax burdens.”

Isaac continued, “The path forward is clear: Texas should unapologetically and proudly support the reliable energy resources our state is blessed with. This situation makes the fact that we need natural gas, nuclear, and clean coal to power our economy and our way of life clearer than ever — and our elected leaders should act accordingly.”

Cohan emphasized the need to make the system “more resilient,” pointing to typically colder places that are still able to generate power from their wind turbines and other sources during severe cold.

However, the cost to fully “weatherize” not only the natural gas system, but the rest of the grid and supply line is likely incalculable right now. Officials must make cost-benefit analysis in the coming months and years on the efficacy of safeguarding against a rare weather event.

“What can we do to not be so reliant on gas for heat and electricity when it’s needed for other purposes as well? That’s something that will have to be looked at,” Cohan added.

For Cohan, the buck stops with ERCOT, adding, “But it’s important that a true investigation of this addresses the deeper challenges that go beyond our power system alone.”

“The connectedness of power, gas, and water systems has shown to be vulnerable and it needs more resilience across all three systems. Both the supply and demand side of this needs to be evaluated.”

ERCOT said on Wednesday that they hope to move back to 15 to 30-minute rotating outages rather than the prolonged “controlled” outages by Thursday. The latest outage total shows 2.9 million customers without power in Texas.

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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.