Texas Power Grid Failure Costly from February’s Wild Winter Storm

Richardson, Texas, city worker Kaleb Love breaks ice on a frozen fountain on Feb. 16. (LM Otero / Associated Press)

Texas is a state known for warm sunny weather almost all year round. Yes, this state does get a little snow on occasion. But the snow barely coats the ground most years. And cold temperatures hardly ever enter the state. This year though, the unthinkable happened when below freezing temperatures and snow slammed Texas with one of the worst weeks in history for the state. The extreme temperatures caused the Texas power grid to fail. Almost everyone in the state was part of the Texas power outage, which seemed never ending. It was an experience no one ever wants to repeat.

However, this latest Texas power grid outage is one that has happened before. There was a cold snap in Texas back in February of 2011. At that time, there were Texas power outages. Those power outages also followed outages that occurred back in 1989. Recommendations were made to improve the winterization of the power grid, but those recommendations were not mandatory.

So, the question of the day is, “Why is Texas still experiencing issues with their power grid and why haven’t changes been made?”

Winter weather predictions from my iPhone just days before.

The Beginning of the Storm that Led to the Texas Power Grid Failure

Let’s begin with the arrival of the recent cold winter storm. When the snow began to fall in Texas, and the temperatures began to drop, most of the locals were excited about the white stuff on the ground. Since snow is not that common, almost everyone was happy to see it and make a few snowballs. They never thought their lives would change due to the snow continuing to fall and the temperature not rising.

While natural gas and coal produce much of the power in the state, wind and solar energy also create a good amount of electricity. Despite all those power producing options, it can be difficult to continuously produce all the electricity that the state of Texas needs. Add in the fact that the electricity grid is independent, and you get a massive problem when things go wrong. Due to the grid being independent, it cannot be connected to other grids when a disaster like this storm happens.

Normally during the winter months, Texas generates approximately 67,000 megawatts. That number is much lower than the 86,000 megawatts generated during the summer months. This shortage is due to different power plants being offline during the winter for maintenance.

There was a reduction in natural gas production last month due to the freezing of the natural gas lines. But that wasn’t the only failure the electric grid had. The extremely cold temperatures also prevented the wind turbines from spinning to create extra electricity.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Result of the Texas Power Grid Failure

The loss of electricity from the grid in Texas caused ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas which operates the electric grid and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state) to begin rolling blackouts. Most people realize that blackouts are necessary to conserve energy. What everyone in Texas didn’t realize was how dire the situation was during this storm.

If ERCOT hadn’t started the rolling blackouts, practically the entire state would have been without power. And that type of Texas power outage would have left everyone without power for a longer period of time. No one had the answer to when it would have been back on. However, some reports are stating that it could have been up to a month before the power came back on for many in the state.

The rolling blackouts were affecting people at different times. There were times though when 35% of the state was without electricity. The blackouts began on Sunday and ended on Thursday. ERCOT did say when the blackouts stopped that it might not be the end of them, depending on how the grid reacted to everyone turning the power back on.

No one was prepared for the major loss of power. Not many people had a generator like the Westinghouse iGen4500 or the ready to provide power to their home. People lost food and couldn’t purchase more at the grocery stores. Everyone was cold, because they didn’t have the electricity to turn their heat on. And pipes froze from the lack of heat and later burst under the pressure.

Unusual picture of a snow covered vehicle in Austin, Texas

Texas Power Grid Failure Costly from February’s Wild Winter Storm

Back to the question of why changes haven’t been made to the Texas power grid. Back in 2011, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a joint report, they stated that they recommended, “all entities responsible for the reliability of the bulk power system in the Southwest prepare for the winter season with the same sense of urgency and priority as they prepare for the summer peak season”.

It appears that ERCOT chose not to use that recommendation. If they had, this latest storm and cold spell may not have created the Texas power outages it did.

According to Ross Baldick, a professor emeritus at the Austin Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Texas, “We simply do not carry enough reserves to deal with such a systematic failure of so many generators. As a matter of course, it would have been very expensive to do it. Although perhaps, if we had prepared a bit more for this particular event, we might have been able to do it.”.

Baldick also estimates that the potential loss for ERCOT for the power outages is around $5.4 billion. He arrived at that number by taking ERCOT’s price cap of $9,000 per megawatt hour and multiplying that by the total number of blackouts, which was 60. Those 60 hours would have exceeded 10,000 megawatt hours.

Of course, the people in Texas lost so much more, but there has not been any comment on the total impact of the storm. Many people lost homes and belongings due to frozen pipes bursting. Others received electric bills of $1,000 a day for each day they had power. Those larger bills were given to people who did not sign up for a fixed-rate plan. Therefore, they paid exorbitant fees for the times they had electricity.

There is definitely a higher cost to winterize existing power plants and other structures. However, newer structures can be winterized without too much of an increase in price. Governor Abbott wants to sign a law and provide funding to winterize, so another crisis like this doesn’t happen in the future.

New wellheads with equipment that withstands the cold will be much cheaper than retrofitting all the existing wellheads. Other options for winterization include retrofitting the blades of the wind turbines. Special coatings and heating elements can be added to ensure the blades keep moving to produce electricity.

The cost to winterize will be high in Texas. But so are the costs of everything that just happened to the people in this state. To prevent another Texas power outage, it is probably best to pay the money and have a working Texas power grid year-round. At least we are sure that is what the people affected in Texas are saying.

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