Mid-February Update: What’s Happening in Texas

Dave Pascoe Comments on Electric Grid Woes

Today, Dave Pascoe, Naval Reserve Commanding Officer, insurance professional, and MnCEF Leadership Council member, reminded us about being prepared for tough times by having hard conversations.

“Preparing for contingencies and putting redundancies in place are two things we are awful at as a society. Texas’ power grid is merely the latest example. Recall supply chain issues when COVID hit. Remember the culled hogs, PPE being stuck overseas, or running across town in search of toilet paper?

Preparing for the worst requires foresight and resources. It’s expensive and unpopular…until it’s critical to daily life. Are there trained fire-fighters in reserve to help with an overwhelming emergency? Does your city have extra salt in case of a bad winter? Is the power grid safe from extreme events?  

As a Naval Reservist and insurance professional, I consider risk and ‘what if’ scenarios often. Thinking long-term is challenging and expensive. Preparing for the worst is even harder. The case of Texas has us wrapped up in typical partisan point scoring. Conservatives deriding AOC’s “Green New Deal” or liberals decrying deregulation miss the point. The way out of energy disasters is a diversified generation strategy, a survivable transmission network, and excess capacity that can be brought online quickly when demand exceeds supply.”

Pascoe’s words, spoken from military and private sector experience, are what we need to remember when we look at infrastructure failures in Texas, California, and elsewhere and plan to keep them from happening again. Anything less won’t get it done.

What Actually Happened to Power Grids?

Natural gas collapses, wind struggles to stay afloat, nuclear and solar shine

The generationally severe winter storm in Texas has pummeled every aspect of the state’s power grid, water infrastructure, roads, and building standards. All Texans are suffering through the storm, and the outages have come from every form of energy generation. Minnesota wasn’t immune as similar gas shortages led to brief power outages in a few western Minnesota communities Tuesday morning. What happened where, and how to we prevent it?

It’s going to take time to uncover the full story of the inadequacies in Texas, but we know there won’t be a single solution. We also know partisan hot takes are going to help solve the problem. When AOC says her Green New Deal would magically solve the problem, she’s just leveraging a crisis for her same old message. When energy advocates more interested in promoting their favorite fossil fuel type than supporting market solutions tell us to ignore the power plant failures behind the curtain and pivot to their own stale arguments, they aren’t helping either. As our friend Representative Nolan West said well, when any partisan is trying to give you a neat, simple solution to a complex problem, they aren’t being honest with you.

We’ll get to Texas in a moment, but let’s not forget there was an impact in our own state. While the vast majority of Minnesota is part of the midwestern grid MISO, a few communities in western MN are linked with the Dakotas and other plains states in the Southwest Power Pool. Tuesday morning around 7 am, SPP was running into problems in their own grid and a few communities across the grid, including some in Minnesota, lost electricity for 30-60 minutes. SPP reported the difficulty stemmed from lack of natural gas resources and temporary difficulty importing power from neighboring grids, a frequent tactic used to assist grids under heavy load. In 2019 as midwestern grids struggled and midwestern wind turbines failed to produce, high winds in the rust belt region of the Atlantic coast’s grid generated a tremendous surplus of wind power that allowed some 5 GW of electricity to be sent our way, keeping MISO afloat. This ability to move diverse power across the country is a lifeline… but it’s one we’ve badly underinvested in, and SPP felt the squeeze on Tuesday morning.

Back to Texas. We’ll let others comment below on the underlying differences between construction in Minnesota vs Texas – buildings insulated for hot summer instead of freezing winter, road systems without plows or salt, water pipes unprotected from outdoor chill – even though that’s a huge part of the story.

Early Monday morning, grid operators in Texas realized they had a problem. They’d planned for a maximum winter emergency peak of around 67 GW but the real need was shaping up to be well over 70 GW. What was worse, natural gas generators were failing left and right. Frozen lines, empty fueling pipelines, and other problems cascaded across the system. For several days, as much as 29 GW of natural gas generation disappeared from the system. Even as of this writing Thursday night some 20 GW of gas is still outaged in Texas.

Wind, which could have stepped up to fill the gap, wasn’t immune from freezing temps, and capacity was lost across the state as well. While wind power provided close to the 6 GW expected from it by grid planners, it could have kept the lights on in millions of homes if many GW more hadn’t suffered their own outages. Coal, which suffers from frozen coal stacks and exhaust blockages in cold weather, also suffered several GW of failures but largely avoided the greater struggles the east coast saw in the 2019 polar vortex that devastated coal generation in the region.
What lights remained on owe a lot to solar and nuclear power. Solar is still a new and small investment in Texas, and was only expected to provide around 200 MW of power. Instead, boosted by the cold, it surpassed that by 10-15 times and generated 2-3 GW during peak daytime hours. Nuclear, which can suffer cooling tower problems in the cold as nearly crippled the east coast grid in 2019, performed excellently with only one brief trip and provided a solid base of power to keep critical infrastructure going throughout the whole crisis.

It should be clear that the story in different years from grid to grid changes every time. All power sources can and do experience major problems in severe cold weather. The consistent trend over time tells us that a diverse grid is a stable grid. Wind, gas, and solar got the east coast through the struggles of nuclear and coal in 2019. In Texas, nuclear proved to be the most reliable option in 2021. We need access to all power sources, and we need a strong grid that can get power to where it needs to be.

Here’s the real bottom line in Texas: there’s no good excuse for any of these power sources to struggle in temperatures in the single digits. In Texas that’s a century storm, but in Minnesota we call that “Tuesday.” Our wind turbines, gas plants, nuclear facilities, and the rest all run every day in far lower temperatures. That’s because we do the weatherization investment it takes. We build a natural gas infrastructure that can heat your home and power your plant at the same time. Natural gas is the goat in Texas this time, but the problem can’t be laid at the feet of any one generation source. It takes hard conversations about the effort, planning, and infrastructure to make sure our power grid can handle whatever the weather throws at it.

Deeper Dive Headlines

Rep. Nolan West gives his take on Texas – “Remember, when somebody offers you something nice, neat, and simple to explain what’s obviously a complex problem, they aren’t telling you the whole story.”

University of Texas Energy Research Predicts Grid Failure Two Days in Advance – Well before blackouts begin, University of Texas researcher Joshua Rhodes flagged the incoming storm of unprecedented demand coupled with potential gas shortages.

Texas Power Grid Crumples Under the Cold – ARS Technica examines the underlying grid issues that led to Texas disaster.

Professor Jesse Jenkins real time tracking of the system failures Monday morning

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