By Carey W. King
The word “reliability” is often used in the context of the electric grid, and this week’s localized blackouts in much of Texas caused by the deep freezing weather have provoked many related questions.
But too often, the word reliability is thrown around much too loosely in the context of energy. To a lobbyist advocating for the fossil fuel narrative, reliability means one thing. To a lobbyist advocating for the renewable energy narrative, it means another. To operators responsible for maintaining the day-to-day technical operation of the electric grid, reliability has additional meaning that few people contemplate except during extreme weather events such as this week.
Very rarely does a person describe reliability in the context of both “fossil” and “renewable” energy narratives, but I will do that here in the context of searching for solutions to make the electricity grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and thus most of Texas, more resilient to extreme weather.
While there are many avenues to search, here I point out three areas: the technology level of weatherizing power plants and linkages to policy and market design; natural gas supply; and ERCOT integration with the Eastern or Western interconnections.
The events of the past few days have indicated that multiple types of power generation became inoperable due to cold weather conditions, causing ice accumulation on components and instrumentation failure. Yes, some wind turbines froze up (but not all 10,000-plus of them), some natural gas plants became inoperable (but not all of them), and one nuclear reactor shut down (but not the other three).
Each electricity generation technology has its pros and cons. We should resist the narratives that focus blame one technology or another because it detracts from making the entire system reliable in the face of all circumstances.
We’ll learn more details about this week’s events over time, but we can ask a reasonable question: Could power plant operators have made investments to maintain the ability to operate in icy and freezing temperatures? This was recommended after a similar situation in 2011. Then why weren’t weatherization investments made?
The answer to this second question usually comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of engineering enhancements: How much does it cost for what benefit?
Imagine going to power plant owners and state regulators and telling them we need to ensure that all Texas power plants can operate at full capacity in the case of four straight days of subfreezing temperatures with snow and freezing rain. You might have received the same response as if postulating the extreme rain event that was Hurricane Harvey. The answer would have likely been: “That event has never occurred. Why prepare for an event that hasn’t ever happened and might never happen?” or “We have an electricity market for that.”
Markets are good at incentivizing an average low cost for wholesale electricity. They are not as good at protecting public health and safety during outlier events.
The investments for increased electric grid resilience to extreme cold and floods likely lie in the domain of regulation and information disclosure. At the power plant technology level, we need to learn what winterizing preparations were performed, what did and didn’t work, and what Texas can learn from power plant owners in more northern climates.
Natural gas supply
Just as in 2011, the natural gas storage and delivery system could not deliver enough natural gas to power plants to meet all heating demands. The electricity grid and natural gas pipeline network are interdependent: Natural gas power plants require gas deliveries to generate electricity, and natural gas pipelines require electricity to pump gas.
While this is a complicated problem to solve, it is not impossible. The state of Texas can fund studies to understand these gas and electricity interdependencies such that for given weather scenarios, heating types, and power-plant generation fleets, we have readily available estimates of Texas’ peak heating and electricity supply.