In the first days of the inclement weather, many started talking about how energy based on renewable sources – the pride of the state – was simply not prepared to take on such natural cataclysms.
But experts from Global Energy note that the problems caused by the weather in Texas were far more complicated. And it raised the question of the need to re-examine the operation of the entire American energy system.
“If you characterise the Texas blackout as a failure of renewable energy only, I think it is a little bit of an unfair judgment,” said Rae Kwon Chung, chairman of the Global Energy Prize International Award Committee and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize In 2007.
“It is a failure – whether conventional or renewable energy – but it’s a failure of the power grid.”
And solving the problem will be a task for the new U.S. administration.
A European lesson
In the United States there is no unified energy system and as a result, there is no possibility of holding some capacity in reserve or reorienting power supplies from other states during periods of peak use or extreme loads, said Adnan Amin, a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and former general director of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
“The interesting thing about the U.S. power system is that there is no real U.S.-wide power system. You essentially have three systems with very little interconnectivity and rather old transmission infrastructure. There is one system for the eastern United States, one for the western United States with the Rockies being a rough demarcation line between them, and a separate power system for Texas basically managed by one utility – ERCOT,” he said.
“There are minimal interconnections line for power trade between Texas and the rest of the country. So when the recent polar vortex hit Texas with unprecedented cold temperatures, it was a perfect storm for the Texas power system that came close to total failure.”
There has long been widespread consensus in much of the world the world about the need to create a unified synchronised energy system to tackle the difficult effects of local catastrophes.
“So security for baseload is very important for any economy and any society,” said Rae Kwon Chung. “This is why in Europe they are connecting each other across the continent, even in the UK. The UK is also connected with the continental Europe and even Norway. There is a widespread super grid interconnecting countries in Europe.”
No one thought about the cold
The other equally important problem was the inability of the electricity grid’s equipment to cope with sharp changes in temperature. During the cold weather in Texas, many high voltage lines snapped, wind turbines broke down and their blades were coated in icicles. It turned out that the possibility of operation in low temperatures was never considered, even in the planning stages.
“It was the gas infrastructure that accounts for the bulk of power generation in Texas that essentially failed. Generating infrastructure froze, metres froze, and pipelines froze, slowing down the flow of natural gas,” Amin said.
“The utility and the state had failed to invest in cold weather protection so as to keep prices low, and when the polar vortex arrived, it hit thermal generation very hard, taking more than one third of power out of the system, as unprotected gas pipelines froze and thermal generation ran out of fuel.”
Moreover, according to meteorological data, even in the coldest part of those three days from 14th to 16th February, the temperature never fell lower than -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). Such temperatures are generally not viewed as extraordinary in many parts of the world – there are any number of types of production systems and equipment that operate in far colder temperatures.
“I thought it was very surprising – even the natural gas pipeline was frozen,” Rae Kwon Chung said. “So this means, I think Russia has been handling this for a long time, but maybe in Texas, in Houston, they were not prepared for it.”
Savings at the expense of national energy security
Adnan Amin said the lack of foresight was rooted in a drive by private investors to keep expenses to a minimum at the expense of national energy security.
“Texan political authorities had decided largely to deregulate the power sector and place its management in the hands of private companies in an environment of low wholesale prices. To make profit, these firms minimised investment in infrastructure or in upgrading the grid, or in investing in protection against rare events which are becoming less rare and this meant that generating infrastructure was more or less unprotected from the unprecedented freezing temperatures,” he said.
“This is actually rather surprising. A similar weather event happened in 2011, there were similar concerns expressed by everybody, a huge report, recommendations for change and infrastructure upgrades were issued and apparently, nothing was done. As natural disasters increase, the risks to power system infrastructure will increase with serious potential consequences for the economy and for people.”
Take the weather forecast seriously
Experts believe that technology provides for reasonably accurate weather forecasting over a given period of time. And forecasters in the week preceding the frigid weather had predicted possible snowstorms and very low temperatures. But no one took the forecasts into account. There was no modern system in the state to store energy and cushion the differences of load imposed on renewables.
“The real question that will have to be answered by power system managers and politicians is that although the information about the weather events was known, why were adequate contingency measures not taken?” Amin said.
“The weather prediction algorithms that are available are quite accurate. It is well known to operators that wind generation decreases in winter, as it did this winter.”
Disputes over which sector was less well prepared for the extreme weather – renewables or traditional energy – are pointless, according to experts.
Although the renewable sector was quite developed, about 88 % of the energy balance in Texas is made up of traditional energy sources. During the emergency, wind installations were producing the maximum amount of energy – it was the system itself that proved unable to handle things.
“The reality was that actual wind production outperformed expectations and was supplying power to the grid in accordance with expectations,” Amin said. “…The neglect of infrastructure with the lack of interconnectors to trade power with other transmission systems brought the power sector closest to systemic failure in its history.”
Rae Kwon Chung said it was irrelevant to try to apportion blame to one sector or the other. “We should not misunderstand that Texas blackout is not an issue for whether we should go for green energy or not,” he said. “Rather the question is, how can we make sure the stability and minimum baseload is ensured for the stability of any society or any economy. We should not confuse two very different questions.”