Texas – The Post Mortem

Now that the power is mostly back on in Texas and the majority of people can drink the water, the what-iffing begins. This is relevant because Texas is far from alone. They just got caught this time and they will be pilloried – for the most part appropriately – as a result.

#1 – According to KHOU-11 in Houston, the number of ERCOT board members who have resigned so far is now up to 6. IT APPEARS THAT NONE OF THEM LIVE IN TEXAS.

#2 – Those of us who have studied this stuff know that nationally, the power grid is extremely fragile. In Texas it is even more fragile because they made a deal with the devil decades ago not to tie into either of the national power grids. They did that because Texans don’t like the federal government and by not connecting into the national power they escaped federal regulation. The folks that manage the Texas grid, ERCOT (note the R in ERCOT stands for reliability) said that the state was 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from a total meltdown when they pulled the power plug. Think about that for a minute. If they had a meltdown, the grid would likely have been down for at least weeks because, in part, it is hard to do a cold start – where they don’t have some power to start up the network. In part, also due to damage to equipment from the meltdown.

#3 – Homeland Security has been working for several years at figuring out how to deal with this (see #4 below), but it is a hard problem. Equipment is not standardized; most is not made in the U.S.; much of it is custom made to order and it might take a year to replace some of the damaged equipment.

#4 – Ever hear of Plum Island? Most people have not. It is a small island off New York’s Long Island. It is DHS’s private test bed for experimenting and training grid technicians on doing a cold start, especially when there is an adversary working against them. DHS and DARPA work together to use the island, which is it’s own power plant and power grid, to test theories and train techs, but how many techs do you think you can train? There are probably millions that need to be trained.

#5 – The Trump administration commissioned a study that reported three years ago that the US was in danger of a “catastrophic power outage”. The problem they said was an aging grid dependent on oil and gas (and no, not on wind turbines, solar panels or a mythical green new deal). Here is a quote from the Trump administration’s own report:

“After interviews with dozens of senior leaders and experts and an extensive review of studies and statutes, we found that existing national plans, response resources, and coordination strategies would be outmatched by a catastrophic power outage… that could leave large parts of the nation without power for weeks or months, and cause service failures in other sectors—including water and wastewater, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services—that are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security.”

The report urged “significant public and private action”. What did the administration do? Nothing much.

The governor, who is under a lot of pressure right now, said the problem was due to green energy – wind turbines and solar. He didn’t point out that the Space Station is completely powered by solar (no oil up there) and it operates in a temperature range of minus 250 degrees to plus 250 degrees. Forbes says that wind turbines work in cold climates. Finland uses them and it gets pretty cold there.

The problem is that no one in Texas wanted to spend the money to winterize their grid, even after a smaller meltdown in 2011 and recommendations (but not mandates) to fix the problem.

#6 – The problem is that oil, gas and coal have to be replenished. Oil and gas have to flow through pipelines. Coal has to be transported, usually by train. If you lose the flow for some reason, the power goes off.

#7 – Other parts of the world were cold too. In Colorado it got down to minus 15 (way colder than Texas) in the Denver area and minus 30 in other parts of the state. Colorado uses green energy too. Note that there were no significant outages in Colorado. Why? Because the state was prepared for it.

#8 – It could have been a lot worse. As bad as it was in Texas, the grid only failed there. I grew up in the Northeast and I am old. I remember what is now called the great northeast blackout that started on the evening of November 9, 1965. New York activated 10,000 National Guardspeople and 5,000 police reserves that night to deal with the chaos. That blackout, along with a similar one in 2003, caused the feds to change the rules for utilities that they regulate. One thing they did was automate a lot of what was done manually because in that case, they only had seconds to do an orderly blackout instead of a meltdown. They were able to restore power in about 48 hours as I remember.

#9 – Texas is big into the concept of a free market economy. Like California before them, they deregulated the energy industry decades ago. As a result, some consumers were charged the going market rate for electricity. Electricity that normally cost 2 cents per kilowatt hour shot up to $9 per kilowatt hour. This means that some people got electric bills of $5,000, $10,000 or even $15,000 for the week of cold. Needless to say, Texas legislators are bearing the brunt of the upset from unhappy residents.

Bottom line, there was plenty of warning that this could happen, but no one – not the Texas regulators, legislature or governor or the national administration – did anything to mitigate the problem.

While we have only started dissecting the situation and there are a lot of investigations sill going on at all levels, including Congress, we already know many things that have to be done.

And, while Texas is in the spotlight, they are far from alone, so hopefully utility regulators in other states will make changes without having to have a meltdown.

I think we will have to wait and see.

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