Texas longhorn cattle in a snow-covered field

Texas Weather and the ERCOT Shutdown

by kirkcoburn
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The ice storm that crippled Texas this month is beyond anything anyone’s seen in the state’s history. It also wreaked havoc on the use of electricity, leaving millions in the dark and freezing in their homes. One might say this is just a once-in-a-lifetime event. It may not be — the current reality of ERCOT (Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) doing rolling power cuts may be an ominous sign of things to come. What’s really going on here? What might the future bring for how Texas deals with its power grid in future years? Let’s dive into the ERCOT shutdown and the events of last week.

A Look at What Caused the ERCOT Shutdown

To see how this started, it’s worth looking again at the unexpected ice storm Texas suffered through. It brought some of the coldest temperatures to Texas seen in a generation. As a result, it created a higher demand for electricity that Texas does not normally see. This storm even rivaled higher demand seen in the summer when hot temps prompt excessive cooling system use.

It wasn’t just high electricity demand leading to the ERCOT shutdown that cut power to millions. A chain reaction took place that also led to natural gas production slowdowns and generation equipment outages.

Texas depends on natural gas as its primary power source. Due to frozen gas wells, natural gas supply was limited. The excessive demand made it impossible to keep every home fueled. At the same time, there were power generation equipment failures. Sub-zero temperatures typically are outside the safe operating range for heating and cooling equipment in gas plants.

I saw an interesting chart from Axios (shown below) about why Texas power demand was so high: new home builds. And new homes primarily rely upon electric heat.

There wasn’t anything ERCOT could do but shut down power to 4 million people. All these Texans could do is try to survive the cold the best they could since there was no quick fix.

Is there really a solution for this monumental power failure? Some signs point to it being an electrical crisis for more than just Texas.

A Deeper Look at the ERCOT Shutdown

The deserted streets of downtown Houston, Texas during the unusual and record cold brought by a strong winter storm in February 2021
Low temperatures reached Houston, Texas, and disrupted the grid throughout the state — and beyond.

ERCOT’s rolling power cuts affected other surrounding states. It led to similar cuts in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. Interconnectedness with Southwest Power Pool and MISO made this a problem for much of the Midwest and southern regions. All of it showed that a power crisis in one state almost always creates a falling domino effect to surrounding states.

Those who believe wind turbines could solve much of this problem realized the turbines, too, were frozen and couldn’t function well. Coal plants and nuclear facilities were also running below expectations.

When looking at the entire picture, it proves a lack of resiliency in power management. Far too many people in power don’t want to admit it, but it’s a crisis needing serious attention this year.

Should Texas reform how ERCOT operates? Unlike other markets, Texas doesn’t share many resources with neighboring states. As such, it forces us to rely only on in-state energy resources, which we all observed didn’t work. A low reserve margin at ERCOT doesn’t help either, leading to big questions about whether Texas will face something like this ERCOT shutdown again sooner rather than later.

What Would a Resilient Energy System Look Like?

After this storm, the warnings are clear to see for Texas and every U.S. state. Even places like Oregon recently faced long power outages from an ice storm that kept people in the dark for up to seven days (and even longer). Places where no one expected extreme weather to happen are now seeing a new, painful reality. 

What can Texas and ERCOT do to change the way energy is supplied to keep everyone going during winter storms?

Everyone is asking this question now, even if it’s far too easy for people to forget once things get back to normal. Sources like The Wall Street Journal note that natural gas shortages still loom. Reliance on natural gas is always going to lead to calls for conservation when supplies run low.

What is the answer? Wind mills did not turn, natural gas production and power plants went down, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Preparation for extreme weather now needs to be the top priority (which it hasn’t been, despite warnings for years). Chances are good that every U.S. state could experience an extreme weather event at any time of the year.

One possible solution could include reinforcing power plants to take on colder weather. This could have included carbon fiber coatings to prevent freezing. More could also be done beyond these basic steps. Some argue in creating a more united grid to prevent individual states from taking on the burden. I however do not think Texas needs to throw in the towel and blend in; however, its current system is not working.

Would a Unified Transmission Grid Work?

More talk is starting about linking energy grids nationwide to overcome any kind of weather crisis and provide energy help in other states. Texas going it alone to avoid federal regulations did not work in this extreme weather environment. Are we being too prideful about our independence? What say you?

Before you judge this 7th Generation Texan that prides himself on being independent, I must ask the question. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal released an article show data supporting that Texas Electric Bills Were $28 Billion Higher Under Deregulation. I will dig into this and write a separate narrative on this one…too much to unpack here.

According to The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, building a nationwide transmission network capable of taking on high voltages would be a major investment paying for itself. Imagine how much other states providing backup power would prevent blackouts in individual states. This sounds good, but I am not sure that I am sold on the one-world order. I do believe that local energy markets can solve many of the problems as I have written before.

The Possible End of Relying on Just Electricity Supply

Based on what’s happened, it’s clear that Texas can’t rely exclusively on just more electricity to keep homes powered. Extreme weather is only going to continue to make resources depending on electricity fail to keep up, and there’s no guarantee that supply alone can prevent another ERCOT shutdown.

Diversifying energy sources is one way to prevent a crisis from happening again. For instance, placing energy efficiency into the equation can provide more reserves during emergencies. Many utility companies have programs using peak usage rebates. It gives incentives for customers to cut back on using their heating or cooling systems in exchange for saving on their future bills. Texas does have a similar program already underway, but it hasn’t expanded nearly enough. Still, their time-of-use pricing method continues to gain steam.

As Dispatches From the Grid Edge notes, Texas has done okay on the supply side lately. It’s just the demand side they need to improve on. The state’s weaker stance on energy efficiency needs more focus if they want to make a dent in their demand challenges. A major solution to this is to embrace the development of local energy markets. Yes, I am on a soap-box, but it makes sense. I could have powered numerous homes in my neighborhood due to having a robust backup generator and get paid for it; however, there is no infrastructure nor incentive today and this must change.

Diversifying Energy Sources to Moderate Peak Demands

Taking various energy sources and combining them into a plan to reduce peak demands may be the smartest option of all. This would mean some things would still be electric, but we would also be tapping alternatives like weatherizing homes or solar technology.

A weatherization plan on homes would already keep old or cheaper-built houses warmer to avoid excessive heat use in cold weather. The federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has been around for a while, and it’s still applicable to low-income people. WAP helps bring more than energy efficiency to homes. It gives precedence to those over 60 and large families with children. These are the people most vulnerable when power systems go off and leave them in cold homes.

Passive solar heating is another good idea since it’s the opposite of fossil fuel reliance. When fossil fuels are in short supply, having solar backup would prove very workable. What makes passive solar heating so appealing is it’s designed for only occasional use. It also isn’t expensive to set up like regular solar systems are.

Through these combinations, those from opposite sides of the aisle on what type of energy source should dominate can finally come together to solve future energy crises.

Removing the Battle Over Fossil Fuels and Energy Alternatives

Some political bickering has already begun over what really caused the Texas storm debacle and ERCOT shutdown. A few pin the blame on the wind turbines freezing. Others note that power plants and natural gas were just as unreliable.

Now it’s up to those who create policy in Texas to decide what the real fix is. Will it be ignored with the thought that extreme weather is a problem just once every 40 years, or will the clear solutions mentioned above be finally implemented?

We all know when a crisis of this magnitude comes up, it can finally place everyone into a mode of working together to get something done. Keep reading more about the ERCOT shutdown and other events shaping the modern energy infrastructure on my blog.

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