The energy information war going in the United States was on full display this week as supporters of various fuel types lobbed rhetorical bombs at each other over the dangerous blackouts that plunged most of Texas into darkness in the depths of February winter. The frigid weather also caused outages in other states (see related story).
California was part of the conversation, as it often is, with some snarkery between residents of the Golden State and Texas on social media. Known for their opposing political and regulatory ideologies, California and Texas within the span of six months each suffered the same energy ill—blackouts—one round brought on by extreme heat, the other by extreme and widespread cold. But the commonality that California and Texas share is a lack of preparation and planning, which should be the real focus of analysis and debate.
The conversation around the Texas blackouts is highly politicized, with Republican elected officials and media pointing to frozen wind turbines. Renewables advocates, in turn, pointed their fingers at the tens of gigawatts' worth of natural gas-fired plants that went off line, as well as wells and pipeline equipment that froze up. Climate activists suggested that previous laws or regulations could have prevented the cold weather. Others promoted long-distance transmission and connection of the mostly islanded Texas grid with the Western and Eastern interconnections.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took to cable television to blame wind and solar for shutting down and thrusting Texas into blackouts. On Feb. 15, however, Abbott sent out a tweet that said "the ability of some companies that generate power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas and coal generators."
The American Clean Power Association in a written statement criticized political and media figures who blamed renewables going off line for the load shedding. Heather Zichal, the group's CEO, accused them of "engaging in a politically opportunistic charade misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities."
The problems in Texas are a combination of a lack of supply and inability to deliver, Kelly Boyd, a Sacramento-based consultant in the energy field, among others, said in a phone interview with California Energy Markets.
Extreme weather will continue, she said, which will require better planning and upgrades to transmission and distribution systems, as well as more supply diversity. More value should be placed on demand response, and it should be more dispatchable, she said.
"The weather extremes are more sustained and they are also more substantial," she said, adding that California faces the same problem as Texas in that it has engaged in short-term energy planning instead of long-term grid planning. That problem is not specific to California or Texas, she said. More distributed energy resources are required on the distribution grid, and "it's not going to be cheap to have reliable distributed energy, but I think it's going to be essential."
"We have to stop balking at the dollar today," Boyd added.
Texas has had many cold snaps before, and there were prior warnings about gas plants' failure to adequately winterize. Texas experienced a similar cold snap in February 2011 that froze up equipment and led to loss of generation. It also suffered the worst drought in its history in 2011 and the hottest summer on record, which almost led to outages, according to a December 2012 legislative report. The energy-only market in Texas also leads to generators fully bearing investment risk, stifling new investment, the report says. A 2011 Electric Reliability Council of Texas assessment on capacity, demand and reserves was "bleak," according to the 2012 report.
"Without enough energy to meet demand, residents could experience involuntary load shedding (rolling blackouts) and a dramatic increase in wholesale electricity prices," the report says. "The entire state's economy would feel negative affects [sic] if inadequate energy supplies prevent companies from functioning properly. Moreover, any uncertainty related to the cost or availability of electricity could hinder business activities and discourage new economic growth."
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation in August 2011 also issued a report about the outages in February of that year.
In 2011, not only Texas, but parts of the Southwest Power Pool, Western Electricity Coordinating Council, New Mexico and Arizona had power system issues. A total of 210 generating units in Texas shut down because of the cold, and 4.4 million customer accounts were affected. Investigations were launched by the Arizona Corporation Commission, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, the Texas Railroad Commission, the New Mexico Legislature and the Texas Legislature.
There were prior severe cold-weather events in the Southwest in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2010, according to the report. The worst, in 1989, was similar to the 2011 event.
After similar generation outages in 1989, PUCT issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization of the generators. But the recommendations were not mandatory, implementation lapsed, and many of the generators that went out in 1989 went out again in 2011.
"Many generators failed to adequately apply and institutionalize knowledge and recommendations from previous severe winter weather events, especially as to winterization of generation and plant auxiliary equipment," the 2011 FERC/NERC report says.
The findings suggest that beyond the fuel-type wars, political opportunism and worries about the changing climate, a failure to winterize infrastructure was the biggest culprit in the blackouts this week. The challenges in California are different, but the failure to prepare produces the same result—a crippled grid and enormous human and societal costs.