This Doesn’t Happen In A Normal Climate– Or Power Grid

The Texas power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), announced in the wee small hours of the morn that they would begin rolling blackouts owing to the current extreme weather event the state is experiencing. While social media was quick to jump on Texans, who, like the rest of the warmer-weather Gulf Coast the whole way up to the Midatlantic, cannot handle really basic snowfall, let’s point out that it is actually really cold in Texas right now. Temperatures in Dallas are near record lows in the single digits. Houston is close to records. Both cities are currently 20-30°F below their normal mean low temperature. ERCOT is projecting that demand this week will eclipse its previous record summer demand, set only three years ago. This doesn’t happen in normal climate conditions, and it also doesn’t happen in a normal power grid.

First, uh, how does a power grid work?

While this is (obviously) a much bigger topic, the basics are worth mentioning. Power grids are, loosely, the assemblage of all the wires and, mostly, the sources and uses, of power that travels those lines. The actual electrons are “created” by turbines that spin very fast, whether moved by steam (nuclear, gas, coal) or direct mechanical energy (wind, hydro). Depending on how we define it, the power grid may also include natural gas distribution. (Natural gas is a complicated one because it is more or less the only fuel that powers both power generation and domestic heat).

The crazy thing about power grids is that power demand must be balanced precisely with power supply. Action, reaction kind of a thing, you know? When you turn on a light, the electrons responsible are balanced by an according number of electrons at the generating plant(s). This means that grid operators– the people who tell the power plants how much power to produce- have to be on their game in a major way. What if they’re not? Well, in short, everything would shut down.

(It gets even more complicated when you start learning about voltage, frequency, amperage, and how all of these things relate).

It’s A Supply And Demand Problem, Not A Managerial One

In general, grid operators have a good idea of how this stuff works. It’s a complex dance between software that understands hardware, and managers who understand both. There are several quasi-independent power grids in the United States. Texas is unusual in that it has its own power grid, because Texas. (It’s also unusual in that the state produces a bunch of oil but also wind energy). Texas wind generation has about doubled in the past decade-ish to around 20GW. Without transmission losses, that’s several million homes. The problem with wind power is transmission over long distances, during which time some electricity is lost.

So, we still rely on gas. Gas can be extracted from the ground easily. It can also be moved in pressurized pipelines. Finally, it carries a higher bang-for-the-buck– given that you can ignite it and usually capture more than 90% of the net amount of energy contained within whatever unit of gas. That’s what we’re talking about when we say a 96% (AFUE) efficient furnace or what have you.

Think of this as sort of the industrial scale of the power adapter that plugs into your wall. Safely moving electricity from a power plant to the transmission lines– the grid- and then moving it from the grid into your Keurig, or whatever, is a matter of stepping up and down voltage. The frequency remains the same, but the voltage changes. Generally, high-capacity transmission over long distances is done at very high voltages. Home voltage is 120-240V in the US.
Peak Events When

But when everyone is using a maximum load of power at once, this becomes a problem. It is easy enough to temporarily increase the load of a regular old power plant– perhaps natural gas or coal. Nuclear power can’t be adjusted incrementally. But it also produces so much energy that it’s whatever. It’s a bit harder still to control the weather (for wind or solar). While battery storage has increased by crazy amounts in recent years, there isn’t anywhere near enough to power an entire grid. Even if there were, we’d run into the issue that most homes are heated by gas, not electricity. This is a building envelope issue above all else. It’s very efficient to use heat pumps to heat a well-insulated building. But you can’t use a heat pump with a leaky or badly designed building.

Major Home Repair: To Go Gas-Free, Perchance To Dream?

In short, we definitely need a bunch of different technology to address this issue. It’s also not just about energy generation, it’s about building more efficient buildings. Reasonably airtight buildings, for example, that are so efficient that they don’t need gas heating. Reduce usage of global warming-causing CO2, methane leakage from natural gas extraction and waste. Oh, and save the consumers a ton of money. That’s how you know it’s not some commie plot to derail your freedom.

Voluntary Blackouts and Extreme Weather Risk

Of course, the problem with climate change is that it theoretically increases the prevalence of these extreme weather events. That supposed 500-year flood? Yeah, it’s happening every 2.3 years now. The models are broken. So we can’t plan for these things by matters of probability developed, you know, a hundred and some years ago. Texas deals with a not-unusual mix of reliability failures. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) found that 24% of outages in Texas were found to be caused by extreme weather.

The wild thing? 8% of outages were attributed to “public appeals, “which means when the grid operator asks you to turn all of your shit off. That’s a little nuts, because it means that we are actually tracking power outages by when the grid operator tells you that sorry, you can’t watch Bridgerton– because there simply isn’t enough power.

Nuclear power generation is stable, safe, and cost-effective per megawatt or jiggawatt hour created. Unlike natural gas, though, it cannot be dialed up in extreme demand events.
Fixing The Grid– And The Social Contract

The problem with the United States is that our social contract is fucked. This is apparent in the Texas power grid situation and it’s also apparent in the coronavirus pandemic. You can’t tell me to turn down my heat or conserve energy! Freedom! You can’t tell me to wear a mask! Liberty! The problem with these responses– beyond their obvious idiocy- is that they have very real implications for bigger systems. Individual sacrifice, in the format of forgoing a cheeky Nando’s wif de lads, is necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. So, too, is it necessary to prevent the whole power grid from collapsing.

We can fix the grid and make it more resilient. Resiliency would mean the ability to adapt better to extreme weather events. It would also mean using local battery storage options to provide local power in extreme weather events. Local batteries and what is called distributed generation– like rooftop solar- could help even out the grid in cases of extreme demand. It will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to get us there. But it’s also worth considering as a matter of not having to have this conversation every time there’s a storm. The Texas power grid will thank us, certainly. And it’ll be better for consumers everywhere.

Further reading: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, by Gretchen Bakke. This article is tangentially related to my series on the infrastructure of tomorrow. Follow more coverage we’ve done on energy in Southeast Michigan. Thanks to Derrick “Strunk & White” Krobusek, a Facebook commenter (and 9/11-was-an-inside-job conspiracy theorist) whose LinkedIn page identifies him as a “Former Directional Driller” seeking “new career in Construction Management,” for pointing out that we were missing a close parenthesis. Krobusek is shocked that people pay us to write this stuff. 

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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