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Texas Power Grid Failure During the February Freeze Crisis

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a series of articles explaining the February partial power grid failure.  When the power demand exceeds power production, the grid frequency drops and puts the grid in danger of collapse.  When that happened, the PUC and ERCOT ordered the grid operators to reduce demand by shutting down power to large areas across the state.  According to the WSJ, when they did that, the Texas grid was within 5 minutes of fatal collapse.  Had it collapsed, it could have taken weeks or even months to restart because the Texas grid did not have enough available “black start” generators.  Nine of the 13 primary “black start” generators were unavailable because of lack of fuel or freeze damage.  Six of the 15 secondary “black start” generators were also unavailable for the reasons Those are the backups for the backups.  According to the WSJ articles, the cause for that was the Texas grid regulators did not compensate the power generators well enough to cover the cost to make the “black start” generators weatherproof.

The grid failed because it had too much of its power generating capacity in green energy, solar and wind, which was unavailable because of the weather.  When ice forms on the blades of wind generators, they become out of balance and must be shut down to avoid major damage.  Solar panels do not work when the sun does not shine.  The grid did not have enough natural gas-fueled generators available to replace that green capacity.   The natural gas-fueled generators were offline because of freeze damage at the generating plants and a shortage of natural gas.  The natural gas shortage resulted from freeze damage and peak demand for home heating.

The grid also did not have enough fossil fuel “spinning” capacity to replace the online fossil-fueled generators when they shut down.  “Spinning” generators are up and running, but not producing power until needed.  It takes 16 to 24 hours to startup a fossil-fueled generating plant.  Therefore, a grid needs spinning capacity to meet unanticipated demands.  Spinning generators cost nearly as much to operate whether they generate power or not.  The Texas grid regulators did not compensate the power generators enough to cover that cost.

The fundamental problem is the grid regulators and Texas Governor, and legislature do not allow the grid generators to pass their costs for weatherproofing their generating plants and for keeping enough “spinning” capacity and “black start” capacity available.

The message for the Texas Governor and legislature is “there is no free lunch”.  Reliable power grid systems cost and that cost much be passed through to power users.  The Governor and Legislature members have blamed the PUC and ERCOT, but they did the best they could with a bad system created by the Governor and legislature.  It is a political problem and only they can fix it.

Author:  Ralph Coker