Brutal Cold Snap Triggers Rolling Blackouts, Drives Up Power Costs as Texas Gas Plants Fail
A brutal blast of cold, winter weather this week killed at least 14 people in four U.S. states, dropped snow and ice on an area from Texas to New England, took 34,000 megawatts of power offline in Texas, drove wholesale electricity rates up by more than 10,000%—and prompted a brief, inevitable burst of complaints directed at the state’s wind farms, before it became clear that most of the missing electricity was from the state’s gas plants.
The severe cold snap “turned the central and southern parts of the country into an extension of the Arctic, with dangerously low temperatures not seen in decades and a blast of snow and ice which has shut down population centres in multiple states,” the Washington Post reported Monday. “The excessive cold has sent energy demand skyrocketing. In Texas, 4.3 million customers were without electricity as of 8:45 PM Eastern, according to poweroutage.us, ahead of what was expected to be one of the state’s coldest nights on record, with most areas falling to the single digits (Fahrenheit) or lower.”
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poweroutage.us was still reporting 3.3 million Texans without power just after Wednesday at midnight local time.
Sunday marked the first time the entire state of Texas had been placed under a winter storm warning, the Post added. The storm produced “nearly impossible driving conditions and hundreds of vehicle accidents,” while closing airports in Houston and Austin as well as the Houston Ship Channel. “Officials urged residents not to travel, as social media videos proliferated of cars and trucks sliding down roads out of control.”
The warnings ultimately extended to 40 states, and major storm conditions were expected for another 36 hours.
“I’ve been following energy markets and grid issues for a while, and I cannot recall an extreme weather event that impacted such a large swath of the nation in this manner—the situation is critical,” said Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Neil Chatterjee told Bloomberg News.
But “the cold blast is just the latest in a chain of severe weather events that have shaken power grids and upended energy markets globally from Japan to Pakistan and France in recent months,” Bloomberg noted. “They’ve all underscored how vulnerable the world has become in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather brought on by climate change, and it’s raising questions about the global push to electrify everything from transportation to heating and cooling.”
Bloomberg explained the underlying atmospheric phenomenon last month, in a post that looked back on the massive polar vortex that hit in 2014 and warned of a likely repeat this year. “Technically, the polar vortex refers to a band of winds that encircle the Arctic and keep the cold locked far to the North,” the news agency wrote. “But with that temperature spike, known as sudden stratospheric warming, the band can buckle, allowing frigid air to head south.”
When that it happens it can result in “chills anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, though this year it’s likely to end up in the U.S.,” Bloomberg added, citing Weather Tiger LLC President Ryan Truchelut. “A wave of deep cold could give the [U.S.] Great Lakes and East Coast their first real blast of frigid winter weather, along with a storm pattern that delivers snowstorms, as well.”
When those storms actually materialized, they forced enough power plants offline in Texas to produce rolling grid outages Sunday night, extending to hours-long blackouts Monday. “Until those power plants can be brought back online, it’s unclear how many people will be left powerless and for how long,” Greentech Media wrote Monday. “The historic storm that spurred a statewide emergency declaration from Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday has forced power plants and wind farms to stop generating electricity, triggering statewide emergency blackouts and leaving the timeline for restoring that power unclear.”
Many of the state’s gas, coal, and nuclear generating stations “began tripping offline starting around 1:30 AM Monday, “ Greentech added, citing a media statement by Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). “While ERCOT hasn’t yet collected the data to determine the precise causes of those generator outages, a previous report from a 2014 cold snap suggests a range of causes, from natural gas pipelines freezing up to the failure of equipment that’s needed to keep power plants operating safely.”
Some news reports had gas plants running short of fuel as suppliers prioritized home heating over electricity generation and gas pipelines started to freeze up.
“As the cold hit, demand for electricity soared past the mark that ERCOT had figured would be the maximum needed. But at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand,” the Washington Post wrote.
“In the single-digit temperatures, pipelines froze up because there was some moisture in the gas. Pumps slowed. Diesel engines to power the pumps refused to start. One power plant after another went offline. Even a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment,” the paper added.
“At a time when the need is the greatest it’s ever been, it’s a strain on the system like we’ve never seen,” added Tom Seng, director of the School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce at the University of Tulsa.
As electricity demand surged and supplies went offline, the short-term wholesale cost of electricity skyrocketed in many parts of the U.S., and from US$22 to $9,000 per megawatt-hour in Texas. News reports had prices exceeding their normal levels more than 10,000% in Texas, 200-fold in Missouri, and 10- to 100-fold in Kansas. Reuters said the supply crunch at least temporarily drove oil prices near 13-month highs after production in the Permian Basin shale fields briefly fell by about a million barrels per day. Jim Ritterbusch, president of Galena, IL-based Ritterbusch and Associates, attributed the price shift to “numerous well freeze-offs and several refinery disruptions, as some facilities have seen forced shutdowns due to power restriction.”
Along with the rotating outages, Utility Dive reported that ERCOT was urging customers to adopt energy conservation measures and using demand response measures to take about 14,000 megawatts of demand off the system Monday, down from an earlier high of 16,500 MW. On Tuesday, the Little Rock, Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool instituted rolling blackouts and declared an energy alert across 14 states.
“This event was well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even extreme, Texas winter that you would plan for,” ERCOT’s Woodfin said. “This weather event is really unprecedented—all of us who live here know that.”
Except that not quite everyone agreed with that assessment.
“When it gets really cold, it can be hard to produce electricity, as customers in Texas and neighbouring states are finding out. But it’s not impossible. Operators in Alaska, Canada, Maine, Norway, and Siberia do it all the time,” the Post noted.
“What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans,” the paper added. “It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.”
But the moment of crisis facing Texas and, to a lesser extent Oklahoma and Texas, “shines a light on what some see as the derelict state of America’s power infrastructure, a mirror reflection of the chaos that struck California last summer” during a brutal summer of heat and wildfires. The Post story has details on that line of thought.
While the Post also has Texas politicians vowing to get to the bottom of the problem, their first impulse was apparently to lay blame on an electricity source that still only accounts for about 25% of their state’s supply at this time of year.
“Texas’ grid has one of the highest proportions of wind power in the United States, and an increasing installed capacity of solar power,” RenewEconomy reports from Australia—where a similar round of accusations swirled around epic grid disruptions a few years ago. “Unsurprisingly, the blackouts immediately led to many assuming that, somehow, wind power had caused the blackouts. Immediately, a narrative began to emerge, across media and far-right networks: the wind turbines were frozen solid by the cold.”
“The massive blast of Siberia-like cold that is wreaking havoc across North America is proving that if we humans want to keep surviving frigid winters, we are going to have to keep burning natural gas—and lots of it—for decades to come,” tweeted ex-Texas governor and former Trump energy secretary Rick Perry.
But “It was immediately clear how fishy the claims were,” RenewEconomy writes. “The grid operator said 30,000 megawatts in total of generation were forced off the system, ‘across fuel types’. What were the remaining 18,000 megawatts? It seemed like to either be fossil gas, the largest share of generation in Texas, or coal, but there was no information. In that vacuum, the meme about frozen wind turbines spread across large media outlets and social media.”
Until the corrections caught up with the initial messaging.
“Don’t point too many fingers at Texas wind turbines, because they’re not the main reason broad swaths of the state have been plunged into darkness,” Bloomberg Green wrote, citing ERCOT’s Woodfin. “While ice has forced some turbines to shut down just as a brutal cold wave drives record electricity demand, that’s been the least significant factor in the blackouts.” The main factors—as RenewEconomy predicted—were frozen instruments at fossil and nuclear plants, and limited gas supplies.
“We’ve had some issues with pretty much every kind of generating capacity in the course of this multi-day event,” Woodfin said.
But as it turned out, “wind shutdowns accounted for 3.6 to 4.5 gigawatts—or less than 13%—of the 30 to 35 gigawatts of total outages,” Bloomberg wrote. “Wind generation has actually exceeded the grid operator’s daily forecast through the weekend,” while solar was “slightly below forecast” Monday.
“The performance of wind and solar is way down the list among the smaller factors in the disaster that we’re facing,” said Rice University professor Daniel Cohan told Bloomberg, making it “really a red herring” to blame renewables.
On Monday morning, citing confidential information from a participant in the Texas electricity market, Princeton University energy systems specialist Jesse Jenkins tweeted that the 30 GW ERCOT had lost at that point comprised 26 GW of thermal plants, “mostly natural gas which can’t get fuel deliveries which are being prioritized for heating loads”, and 4 GW of wind capacity due to icing.
“That is a HUGE amount of gas capacity offline, about 30% of total ERCOT capacity and ~half of the natural gas fleet,” he added, in the course of a longer, more detailed (and really informative) Twitter thread. “This IS now an emergency situation.”
By Tuesday morning, Microgrid Knowledge was out with an assessment of how a less centralized power system could have helped ERCOT cope with the sudden crisis.
“While their numbers are still few, microgrids kicked into action as early as last week when it became apparent a crisis was nearing,” the specialty newsletter reported. “Microgrid company Enchanted Rock has about 600 microgrid units in Texas. Of those, 150 have been supplying about 260 MW of capacity to aid the grid,” at a moment when every megawatt counts—even if this particular collection of megawatts is supplied by gas, not yet by renewables.
“About 70 of Enchanted Rock’s customers were experiencing grid outages,” Microgrid Knowledge stated. “But their onsite microgrids kept electricity flowing on their premises. Many of these are stores that were able to stay open to supply food, prescriptions, and gas during the crisis,” along with assisted living and other types of facilities.
“I saw a note from a customer thanking us for our support of their operation because they don’t have to worry about evacuating their patients or residents,” said Enchanted Rock Chief Commercial Officer Allan Schurr.
“This is another great example of where microgrids can not only provide resiliency for their respective customers but also alleviate some of the load on the grid, allowing the utilities to maintain their own system reliability,” added Ameresco Executive VP Michael Bakas. “The utilities could reach out and request the microgrids to island. That would reduce the utilities’ load requirements and could potentially allow them to avoid rolling outages. This is a good example of where microgrids and utilities can co-exist and benefit from each other.”
Mike Byrnes, senior vice president at Veolia North America, agreed that “at times of grid stress the resiliency and societal benefits of microgrids really shine through.”
In an article Monday that was not related to the immediate crisis, two former U.S. state utility commissioners argued that it will cost less for the U.S. electricity system to decarbonize if centralized grids are backed up by greater reliance on distributed energy. “As former regulatory commissioners, we are struck by how many policy-makers and utilities believe doubling down on preserving the centralized system is the best way to repair the aging electric grid,” wrote Anne Hoskins, now chief policy officer at Sunrun, and Jeanne Fox, co-founder of the Center for Renewable Integration, in a post for Greentech.
“We have long advocated for a new system that relies on more distributed energy resources spread across communities, but state commissions have lacked modeling tools that show the pathway for local energy resources, such as solar, batteries, and geothermal, to benefit our electricity grid.”