Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Rolling blackouts keep following me around

Jerry Stratton, February 24, 2021

It’s a blues song. When I lived in San Diego, San Diego bore the brunt of California’s exchange-based rolling blackouts and high prices. Politicians and bureaucrats had the brilliant idea that if you bottleneck consumer energy purchases in a government exchange, they could get a lot more graft. It worked—witness Enron—but it also, like our more modern health exchange, precipitated massive price increases and shortages.

Now there are rolling blackouts in Texas, in the midst of the coldest weather we’ve had since I moved here—and apparently the coldest weather in half a century.1

There are some huge differences between this crisis and California’s back at the beginning of the century. Most importantly, these blackouts didn’t last for several weeks. And almost as important, Texas allowed energy sellers to make contracts. That means that (a) my costs have not skyrocketed like they did in San Diego2 and (b) my energy company let me know they were in no danger of going out of business.

But in one sense last week’s blackouts in Texas happened for the same reason as San Diego’s: really bad government policies. In this case, to get more of that sweet, sweet cash from federal subsidies, Texas included unreliable energy sources in its reserve forecasts. This allowed them to prioritize wind and solar to a higher proportion than they could have if they had only included reliable energy sources in reserve forecasts. “Reserve” here means “what do we have to cover emergency increases in power usage?”

We’ve got to the point where wind is nearly a quarter, 24%, of our energy production. It is exceeded only by natural gas at 44%. We’ve been both increasing subsidies of wind turbines, and drawing down coal.

It worked, barely, until last week. I don’t remember any problem with the last hard freeze a few years ago. But only barely. Organizations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been warning for years that the real reserve—the reserve of reliable energy—has been dropping awfully close to zero as Texas adds more and more unreliable energy and does not add reliable energy to make up for it. Texas has even been removing reliable, resilient energy, mainly coal.

Apparently we came very close to rolling blackouts during that last freeze, and again over the last summer. This was an entirely predictable event.

Texans normally think in terms of heat waves, but cold is a lot more dangerous than heat. And more importantly, the worst heat happens during the day when the sun is shining; and the worst heat doesn’t tend to be combined with other weather events. But the worst cold happens during the night when the sun is not shining and this cold snap was preceded by freezing rain and snow. I woke up to eight and a half inches of snow on Monday morning.3

That shut down at least half of our wind turbines. Whether we had wind or not, we weren’t getting energy from it. Coal and nuclear appears to have picked up their share of the deficiency nicely. Coal and nuclear plants have the ability to store their reserve onsite. Natural gas gets it from pipelines delivered as needed.

But then comes the third really bad decision. ERCOT—the misnamed Energy Reliability Council of Texas, a government-sponsored entity whose job is to “manage the flow of electric power”—waited until the last minute to implement rolling blackouts. Now, this is somewhat understandable. Rolling blackouts are never fun. But they keep increased energy demand from overloading the generation systems4, and done right they mean homes are merely cold and not freezing.

But because they waited until the last minute—and I’m guessing here on the reason, but not on what happened—some of the power plants were triggered into a shutdown by too much demand. And when they implemented rolling blackouts someone included the Permian Basin.

The Permian Basin supplies much of the natural gas to Texas’s natural gas plants. Natural gas producers use the electrical grid for power to feed the pipelines that feed the power plants. Without power, natural gas production and supply to the pipelines shut down. Without gas, the power plants shut down. In single-digit temperatures. It’s difficult enough to bring a power plant up in the best of conditions. The cold weather cannot have helped.5

I’m not sure how much blame we can lay on whoever made that decision. Mistakes happen, and we need systems that are resilient enough to keep supplying energy even when mistakes happen. Coal and nuclear aren’t even subject to that kind of mistake, for example. And natural gas once wasn’t either. According to someone I talked with who works in the Permian and who was there when the power went out, natural gas producers didn’t used to rely on the grid for power. They used the natural gas they were producing to power both production and supply. But, according to him, government incentives have pushed producers into using the grid for power instead of eating their own dog food. I don’t know to what extent either of those assertions are true.6 But to the extent we are encouraging power producers to rely on the grid to keep the grid running, we need to change that yesterday.

With the loss of natural gas from the Permian, the blackouts got a whole lot worse. But it could have been even more deadly. Our population is growing, and we have new power generators planned: 80% percent of it is wind and solar. Wind and solar cannot ramp up in times of need, and cannot even be relied on to deliver its average. It delivers what it delivers and no more. Solar delivers nothing at night when it’s coldest. Both failed this time because of their exposure to the events that caused power needs to jump.

This experience highlights a lesser known problem with unreliable energy: it isn’t just that the energy source—wind, light and heat from the sun—goes away at times we have no control over, but that these sources must by their nature be exposed to the elements. It’s very difficult and very expensive to winterize a wind turbine that must be exposed to the wind. The same is true of solar: it must be exposed to the sun. That makes wind and solar vulnerable to the very events that cause higher demand. They’re exposed to rain, to dust, to snow, to sleet, and to ice.

But there’s another issue, too. We talk a lot about reliable and unreliable energy, but there are two kinds of reliable energy as well: resilient and non-resilient. Resilient energy production can keep producing even if their sources shut down. Coal and nuclear are resilient. Coal plants usually keep weeks—and up to two to three months—of fuel stored and ready for use. If the coal supply stops because trucks and trains can’t get through, coal plants continue supplying power. If you want more power, pile on more coal. The same is true of nuclear. Its fuel is stored onsite.

Backyard big freeze

What a scene to wake up to in Texas after Valentine’s Day.

Coal was our second biggest energy supply last week. Nuclear was number one. That’s resilient power.

Natural gas almost always comes through pipelines. Those pipelines are very reliable but they are vulnerable to anything that disrupts the pipelines. Shutting down the grid probably shouldn’t be one of those vulnerabilities. We should seriously consider powering natural gas production and delivery on the natural gas they produce so that they don’t rely on the grid.

Instead of reliable and resilient energy, however, Texas has been retiring coal power plants in favor of wind and solar. Those retired power plants, if they’d been kept, would have brought us through this cold snap with minimal or no blackouts, even with the other mistakes made.

Instead, we spend billions, both from Texas and federally, in taxpayer-funded subsidies, to divert construction from reliable, resilient power generators to unreliable, intermittent ones. And we change the rules so that we can include unreliable energy in calculations of what we have available for emergencies. In the last five years we’ve seen about 20,000 megawatts of wind and solar added, and a reduction of 3,000 of coal and natural gas. That’s a death spiral: the more unreliable power we add, the more fragile our electrical grid becomes.

We need to change.

We came very close to a complete ERCOT-wide shutdown this time. Another year of misguided policies, another year of drawing down reliable energy in favor of unreliable energy, and a lot of people would have died.

There’s a weird postscript to the blackouts. On February 14, ERCOT asked permission from the federal Department of Energy (PDF File, 930.8 KB) to run coal and natural gas at higher capacities. ERCOT self-limited the request to “a price no lower than $1,500/MWh”. That means, wait until it’s a real crisis, when people are already freezing.7 I’ve only been in Texas a short while, but I’m enough of a Texan to think ERCOT should have upped power production without asking for permission, before it became a crisis.

To my representatives in Austin:

We need more power plants with the reliability that comes with being able to draw more fuel when we need more energy; and we need more power plants with the resiliency to continue generating power when fuel stops flowing—power plants that can store their fuel on-site. The first means more gas, the second more coal and nuclear. We should be adding coal, not retiring it. And we must restart all of our mothballed coal plants.

Reserve forecasts should never include unreliable intermittent energy sources, and should be heavily weighted toward resilient power from stored fuel.

It needs to be easier for small power generators to start up to serve smaller locales, down to neighborhoods. We need to remove the roadblocks that block local entrepreneurs.

We can’t make the wind blow and we can’t make the sun shine. We can’t hope that freezing temperatures aren’t preceded by freezing rain. We need to stop prioritizing unreliable energy sources and focus our new power generation on reliable, resilient sources. This last week would not have been a crisis had our grid not been so deeply reliant on unreliable sources that contribute the least when they are needed the most.

We need to end all subsidies for power generation, especially all policies that encourage unreliable power or relying on the grid to keep the grid running.

To the extent that federal bureaucracies prohibit any of these, turn Texas into a sanctuary state for reliable, resilient energy. If federal bureaucrats want us to freeze, make them fight for it. Force DC to say that people should freeze. Don’t do it for them.

This summary should fit on a single page, should you feel inclined to send a letter to your Texas representatives.

In response to Texas and Round Rock: News from Texas, and especially Round Rock/Austin.

  1. I didn’t experience any blackouts this time. Possibly that’s because the fire station is nearby; I don’t know. And it’s possible I didn’t experience blackouts in San Diego either. I don’t remember anything major; I was near a hospital and may have been on the same circuit.

  2. Obviously, my bill will go up, since I used more energy, but the cost per kilowatt hour remains what I signed up for. Energy consumers who didn’t sign up for fixed-rate plans will be getting bigger bills, though to the extent that the bigger bills are the fault of accidentally shutting down power plants, that may end up being mitigated by legislative action.

  3. That’s my backyard table in the numbered meme at the top of the post.

  4. Quoting another expert: When voltage and frequency in the transmission system drop too dramatically, they can trigger safety equipment at the power plants to turn off to avoid destroying equipment with an overload.

  5. There’s been a lot of talk about how Texas power plants aren’t winterized. That is a serious issue, and one that should be addressed. But it wasn’t the problem here, except in the sense that it is very difficult to bring a power plant of any kind up from a shutdown state; it is even more difficult in single-digit temperatures. Winterizing is normally meant to keep a power plant running during cold temperatures; it isn’t meant to bring up a dead power plant. Texas absolutely should take winterizing more seriously. But winterization in the sense it is normally used probably would not have changed the outcome last week.

  6. Update March 2 2021: now I do. The incentives turn out to have been “An Obama-era environmental rule that forced oilfield compressors to switch from natural gas to electric…”.

  7. The DOE granted permission within the requested limits.

  1. <- Round Rock incentives