Explainer: The Texas Power Grid

America’s collective eyeballs have been trained on Texas this week, as the state continues to grapple with the ongoing after-effects of an Arctic outbreak. Millions of residents have found themselves without safe or reliable water service, and, as of Friday, hundreds of thousands were still without power, struggling to heat their homes amid subfreezing temps.

The circumstances have raised as many questions as they have concerns, and we are here to answer a few of them today so that you may better understand the week’s events.

So without further ado, let’s dive in.

How do power grids work?

First, electricity must be generated, either via fossil fuels — coal or natural gas — and nuclear energy or through cleaner options like hydropower, solar, wind, et al. It is then converted into a high voltage for long-distance transmission and delivered through a network of generator stations and transmission lines/towers, otherwise known as the power grid. The power lines that pepper our nation’s landscape deliver this electricity to populated areas, where transformers step down the voltage to one fit for public consumption.

What causes a power grid to fail?

Power grid management involves a careful balancing act, as the energy flow must match the “demand load,” or, the total usage by consumers. As large amounts of electricity cannot be stored, power grid operators must react quickly to shifting demand, routing energy to where it is most needed and managing transfers of electricity with other balancing authorities.

When demand load is dangerously high, outstripping the power supply available, components of a power grid can trip and shut down, requiring other units of the network to compensate for the loss. This can cause subsequent units to shut down in a system of cascading failure, which often results in large-scale blackouts.

Extreme weather also has the potential to lead to grid failure. Cold snaps, for example, can cause natural gas wells and wind turbines to freeze, preventing providers from generating electricity.

So what happened in Texas?

The primary resource for Texas’ power grid is natural gas, especially during peak usage, and the state’s natural gas providers suffered catastrophic failure this week. Unable to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production, nearly half of the state’s natural gas generating capacity — an estimated 45 gigawatts — grinded to a halt. And without the fuel necessary to run these plants, operators were forced to shut down. Meanwhile, the state’s other resources were suffering similar failures, as president and CEO of ERCOT, Bill Magness, said that the state “saw coal plants, gas plants, wind, solar, just all sorts of our resources trip off and not be able to perform.”

With such a glaring inadequacy in supply, ERCOT had no choice but to drive down demand with forced outages.

Can this not be protected against?

It is, in fact, possible to “winterize” these operations by upgrading equipment to withstand low temperatures and by providing incentives to customers to conserve power.

But Texas’ providers are under no obligation to do so.

Officials assumed that the high prices reaped from operating during times of peak demand would be incentive enough for plant owners to safeguard their equipment. Regulations weren’t necessary, they reasoned, as the free market would reward those who made the proper investments.

But Texas’ providers decided that cost-saving measures trumped insurance against failure — a decision that would later lead to last week’s large-scale disruptions.

You said earlier that other units of a grid network can compensate for loss. Why not here?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, power grids are interconnected to help “maintain the reliability of the grid by providing multiple routes for power to flow and allowing generators to supply electricity to many load centers. This redundancy helps prevent transmission line or power plant failures from causing interruptions in service to retail customers.”

Texas, however, is unique in their operation in that they have an independent power grid.

In the United States, there are three power grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which covers roughly 90 percent of the state.

Why an independent grid, you ask?

In 1935, Congress passed the Federal Power Act under the Public Utility Act — a piece of legislation that gave the federal government the authority to regulate interstate electricity transmission and wholesale power sales. Not wanting to be subject to federal regulation, Texas power companies agreed not to sell power outside of Texas — an agreement that freed them from government control but isolated them from the rest of the country. As it stands, the only connections that the ERCOT grid has to outside grids are ties to the Eastern Interconnection and the power grid in Mexico, which allow for the transfer of just 800 megawatts and 400 megawatts, respectively — a fraction of the 45-plus gigawatts lost to the storm.

As such, Texas lacked the connections necessary to compensate for the substantial losses sustained.

How do we protect against future failure?

First, Texas’ providers would do well to winterize their operations. Secondly, Texas should explore and invest in interconnections with neighboring states. And last, Texas must bolster their reserve power capacity — a need previously seen as unnecessary due to the resource-laden lands on which they sit — and establish a capacity market, where outside operators remain on emergency standby to supply power during extreme weather events.

As warming in the Arctic destabilizes the jet stream, allowing the polar vortex to shift southward, we can expect continued deep freezes to disrupt energy grids and other infrastructure, which will require significant investments to address vulnerabilities.

“I think the key point here is that we need to be prepared for these extreme events, today and in the future, no matter what the generation sources [are],” says Lori Bird, director of the U.S. energy program at the World Resources Institute. “Because I think this event shows that all generation sources are vulnerable to these extreme events.”

If you would like to help Texans suffering in the aftermath of this crisis, consider making a donation to Mutual Aid HoustonDFW Mutual AidAustin Mutual AidPara Mi GenteFeed the People DTXTrinity Mutual Aid, West Street Recovery, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, Home Center, Feeding Texas, North Texas Food Bank, Kids’ Meals, or Texas Panhandle Pet Savers.

If you are local, consider volunteering your time or resources to Meals on Wheels, at cold-weather shelters in Austin, to transport people and supplies, to the Rio Grande food bank, to the Pandemic Mobile Pantry, to the Houston Food Bank, to Kids’ Meals, or to CrowdSource Rescue.

More resources for helping the homeless can be found here.

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