Updated: May 4, 2021
As of yesterday, February 17, 2021, around 4 million residents in Texas faced winter storm conditions and extremely cold temperatures with no electric power. For some households, the electric power had been out for several days. The power is beginning to return today, but millions of Texans now must boil their water so that it is safe to drink.
Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians also experienced multi-day power outages due to a severe winter storm. Power is also out in parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kansas, as these states also face wintry weather.
Increased electrical load brought on by unanticipated extreme cold led to the outages in Texas. Multi-day blackouts with load-based causes are unacceptable in 2021. The electric utility industry continues to operate on electrical technology dating back to the 1960s, even as demand increases and hazardous environmental conditions worsen. The power grid needs a continent-wide update and operators need to adopt modern, collaborative practices so massive failures like these can be prevented in the future.
Let’s take a look at what happened in Texas and what steps they can take to prevent this in the future.
Why Texas Lost Power
Millions of residents in Texas have been without power for hours to days during a winter storm that brought subfreezing temperatures to much of the lower 48. As the temperatures dropped, Texans raced to heat their homes by increasing the thermostat temperature and plugging in electric heaters, which led to an increased demand for electricity.
Texas relies heavily on natural gas to both generate power and heat homes. As the demand for natural gas increased across the state, less gas was available for natural gas generating stations to use to create electricity. This led to an electricity shortfall in addition to a natural gas shortage.
Some electric generating stations across Texas shut down due to the freezing temperatures and winter weather; others went offline because of the natural gas shortage. Some wind turbines froze and were therefore unable to operate. The increase in demand met with the lack of supply created a perfect storm for multi-day blackouts across the state.
In addition, the grid was not prepared for a sudden load increase to occur in February. Texas usually sees peak loads in the summer when high temperatures increase air conditioning use. With typically mild winters, grid operators were not expecting this sudden increase in demand for electricity.
Step 1: Adopt Practices from Northern States
Texas is rarely faced with temperatures plunging below freezing and winter storm conditions. Because of this, electric utilities have little to no freeze protection strategies in place to protect critical infrastructure from winter weather.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) must look to northern states and Canada, which have had freeze protections in place for years. By adopting practices that prevent outages during freezing weather in states like Wisconsin, which experiences below freezing weather for months each winter, Texas can be prepared to face the next bout of freezing weather without statewide outages.
Step 2: Update Infrastructure to Increase Community Resiliency
Texas has tried to solve the power issue by implementing rotating outages. While effective as a last resort, rotating outages are not a sustainable long-term solution. The existing rotating outage system is designed for immediate, short term action; if rotating outages will last longer than a few hours, the outage scheme needs to be updated. Reclosers and other devices can be used to optimize rotating outages. These devices should be planned for and implemented before a rotating outage is necessary.
Additionally, updating the power grid to include electric warehouses would lead to more community resiliency. Electric warehouses, which can be added by just upgrading existing substations, contain energy storage modules that can provide power to communities for up to three days in the winter. Residents and businesses within the community could limit their electricity use so that energy storage modules could provide power for even longer in an emergency situation.
Step 3: Collaboration
Texans have generally prided themselves on having an independently operated electric grid. Texas has plethora supply of electrical generation, as well as a high demand for electricity, so the grid usually has no reason to be connected to the larger grids that span multiple states across the U.S. However, as Texas’ power grid has never faced such extremely cold weather, utilities there lack fundamental knowledge for how to address the problem, which is common practice in northern states.
Transmission and distribution system operators across the country should create a group, i.e. The Institute of Transmission and Distribution System Operators, in which knowledge and resources can be shared. This group should have a multidiscipline advisory committee that focuses on environmental conditions, community needs, and material properties that are normally outside the scope of electrical engineering. By sharing information and working in collaboration, the risk of situations like the Texas blackouts can be significantly diminished.
Within this group, innovative processes should be created so that the industry can assess the risks and potential consequences for failing to address each risk. These risk matrices should be consulted by every electric utility as they upgrade to next generation technology. Issues and solutions used at power plants in Wisconsin are relevant when a similar situation arises in Texas or Oregon.
By engaging in a program that shares knowledge and solutions, electric utilities can improve their reliability and increase their resiliency in the face of a changing climate.
Our Thoughts Are with Texas
As Texans continue to face the winter storm and freezing temperatures without power, and in many cases also without water, we at Prescient hold all Texans in our thoughts. Many Texans experiencing homelessness are facing the storm without shelter or access to water. If you have heat and power during these cold winter months, consider helping out the folks in Austin or Houston, or donating to the American Red Cross, which has been providing warming centers to people across the state.
This article was co-authored by Alyssa Sleva, Head of Marketing at Prescient.