Texas’ recent power outages from the winter storm have lessons for the whole nation. The reason for the outages is simple, though only at a high level. The blackouts get complex fast. The complexity is already showing itself in the factual and not-so-factual news stories that are showing up. Understanding the blackouts will be tougher as the finger-pointing grows. (And it will grow.)

ECC will devote a series of blogs to the Texas blackouts and how they reflect on the energy system overall. These will be bite-sized ideas that we’ll put together later into one larger report.

This blog is at a high-level, an introduction to what happened.

CNBC did a good summary about the big picture early in the event:

  • Power outages in Texas from the winter storm reveal a broader crisis: Climate change is fueling more frequent and destructive weather disasters that are overwhelming existing U.S. infrastructure.
  • Utilities [at the request of the grid operator, ERCOT] have begun rolling blackouts to ease pressure on strained power systems and meet high demand for heat and electricity amid freezing temperatures.
  • Extreme weather events caused 67% more major power outages in the U.S. since 2000, according to an analysis of national power outage data by research group Climate Central.

Three themes emerge from the blackouts:

  1. Our power system operates in a changing environment.
  2. The power system itself is technologically changing.
  3. Business and regulatory processes in Texas were not prepared for either 1 or 2.

These require power companies, policymakers, regulators, and customers to adapt. Remember that change is not easy. Just look at the debates in South Carolina about changing a small utility for better performance.

The Texas blackouts have a simple explanation – too much demand for electricity and not enough available power. “The Texas event was created by two compounding factors: increased, maximum demand on baseload generation that was limited by capacity, fuel supply, and some forced plant outages,” says Jim Little, a South Carolina-based energy engineering consultant. “These stressed the limited amount of spinning reserve. The only option left was load shedding.”

Load shedding means not delivering power to customers who have it now. The power is simply not available. Note that Texas does not have the ability to import power from other states. It was considered to be big enough, and independent enough, to manage itself.

Austin, Texas, outages Friday, 2/19. Gaining ground.

The Texas blackouts were compounded by tying the state’s hands behind its back: The Texas regional transmission organization – ERCOT – was intended to make power cheap and minimize oversight – questionable design to ensure reliability. It was created for lowest cost, no matter what.

In the end the blackouts may be the costliest disaster in Texas history. No savings there.

Austin shopping/apartment substation in sunnier times. It was in the blackout.

Simple Texas blackouts have complex underlying components – Get more fuel to the power plants, upgrade power plants to better withstand heat and cold, create more generation, upgrade transmission and distribution, digitize the grid, upgrade building efficiency, form a smarter regulatory framework, and, by the way, save money for customers and make sure elected officials understand the issues.

Over the next few blogs about the Texas blackouts, we will look at questions that ought to be asked as the whole country looks at a changing energy future and after the Texas blackouts:

  • What is spinning reserves’ role in power reliability?
  • What is a “capacity market”?
  • What are regional transmission organizations and what purpose should they serve?
  • Why is a diverse energy system smart, and how do we get there?
  • What is the traditional utility model’s role in energy?


Feature image: A scene from a home without power in Pflugerville, just north of Austin, Texas