‘System-wide failure’: Energy expert says outages could have been prevented — at a cost

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Governor Greg Abbott has demanded answers from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the power supply for the state. However, energy experts said there was plenty of blame to go around for the winter storm crisis that left millions in the dark for days.

Princeton University Assistant Professor of Energy Systems Engineering Jesse Jenkins called it a “system-wide failure” at nearly every level.

He initially pointed out Texas homes aren’t designed to weather these kinds of low temperatures, meaning customers are cranking the heat and driving up demand. ERCOT said they plan for extreme scenarios and ensure they have enough capacity to meet emergency conditions, but their leadership indicated they weren’t prepared for a weather event this lengthy or extensive.

At its peak, he said there was 3,000 megawatts more demand for electricity than ERCOT accounted for in an ‘extreme load condition.’

“This event falls outside all of the extreme scenarios they predicted,” Jenkins explained.

However, Jenkins said the problem extends far past the demand side of the equation. Frozen wind turbines and under-performing solar power contributed to the problem, but he said the primary issue were freeze-ups at power plants and natural gas pipelines, slowing the state’s generating capacity. He reported 30,000 megawatts worth of thermal power plants were offline — nearly 45% of Texas’ coal, gas and nuclear generators.

“How much insurance do you want to pay for? You have to pay more for more insurance.”

Jesse Jenkins, energy systems engineering expert at Princeton University

That’s why Jenkins said he places some of the blame on the generators themselves, along with ERCOT.

“ERCOT’s job is to design the market incentives to make sure the power plants have the right incentives to be available and run the adequate generation. To be clear, they did make a plan and said, ‘We think our market is adequate to do this.’ It clearly has not been this week,” he explained.
“That said, all the generators are individually responsible for ensuring they are available when they need to, and they have adequate financial incentive to ensure they are.”

He thinks better weatherization for their equipment and plants could have prevented some of the supply issues.

“I think of this as basically like planning for insurance,” Jenkins said. “How much insurance do you want to pay for? You have to pay more for more insurance. You hope you never have to use it – the best insurance is the insurance you never have to claim. You know, in hindsight when you do have a tragedy strike, you start to second guess whether you should have been paying more all along.”

He said preventative measures could have included burying pipelines lower or including more insulation or installing heating systems on wind turbines to keep them from locking up due to ice. Even requiring more insulation in homes to better handle cold temperatures, he noted, would have helped on the demand side.

“All of those cost more money though, and the question is, how much do you want to spend up front for events that happen very rarely — but when they do, can be very dangerous given the cold conditions that can happen,” he said.

In a live interview with ABC13 in Houston Tuesday night, Gov. Abbott called on ERCOT leadership to resign over the issue, calling the council “anything but reliable.”

Representative James Talarico, a Democrat from Round Rock, said he and his collegues at the legislative level planned to take action.

“This is a manmade disaster. This is the result of bad public policy making, years of under investment,” he said, in an interview with KXAN from his car, where he was warming up after nearly 30 hours without power himself.

In a news conference on Tuesday, ERCOT explained the current outages were necessary to reduce strain on the system — that could result in a system-wide blackout.

Bill Magness, the president and CEO of ERCOT, said, “As hard as these outages are, they avoid a much more catastrophic situation.”

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