Texas Teeters on Blackout’s Edge

The sun and the power grid -- enemies in Texas today, but they could be the best sustainable friends. (Photo by pranav/flickr)

The electric power grid in Texas is at the crisis point, its managers on the verge of having to impose rolling blackouts on a sweltering population, and is providing a leading indicator for the rest of the country. It is not only the heat that is placing unprecedented demands on the grid (after February cold and storms led to rolling blackouts), it’s the attitude of the people in charge that pretty much guarantees catastrophic failure ahead.

First, the situation: Texas is in the grip of an historic heat wave and drought, the effects of which are gathering on water supplies, food crops and energy supplies. Temperatures in much of the state have exceeded 100 degrees F. for more than a month, and consequent demand for electricity set all-time records three times this week. The optimistically named Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, said just two weeks ago that it had plenty of capacity to see the state through the heat wave, thank you very much. But this week it was running every facility it had flat out, and intermittently cutting power to large industrial users to keep the grid from going down. It was, it admitted, one technical glitch away from blackouts.

Now, the attitude: Kent Saathoff, ERCOT’s vice president of system planning and operations — it was he who made the confident prediction two weeks ago that everything would be fine — said yesterday, on the worst day of the crisis thus far, that “state power generators can’t be expected to prepare for every extreme. You have to determine if it is worth spending millions or billions to avoid a one in 10-year event.”

Wow. Saathoff’s statement of two weeks ago was based on the assumption that the heat wave would be of normal dimensions. Now that it’s obviously anything but normal, he puts it in a “one in ten years” category. Has he not got the memo, signed by 97% of the world’s experts on the subject, that says the world’s climate is changing? Does he not read the news about the myriad ways in which climate change is already here, and that one-in-100-year events are now treading on each other’s heels as they cascade in upon us in the form of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and droughts?

His most recent statement is odd in the context of grid management, even ignoring the external threats. Managing a grid is all about providing for peak demand, however seldom it occurs, because any demand on the grid must be met instantaneously — electricity travels at the speed of light — to avoid a voltage drop that could take the system down and severely damage equipment.

Texas is a kind of microcosm of the rest of the country’s imminent power problems. It is, of course, located in such a way that the effects of a drying and warming Southwest are nailing it first. Not so well known is the fact is that for some reason the national power grid is divided into three sections: one east of the Mississippi, one west of the Mississippi — and one for Texas. The state’s grid lacks the muscular interconnections that allow the other two grids to back each other up, and so must meet its crises pretty much on its own.

An ironic footnote: Texas has mounted more wind turbines than any other state, but the wind does not blow in Texas in summer, when demand for electricity peaks. Wind delivered about 2,000 megawatts to the Texas grid on Wednesday, about 20% of what it could have mustered if the wind had been blowing, on a day that saw consumption exceed 68,000 MW.

The historic heat and drought are not now confined to Texas, and will not be in the future; it is clear that the Southwest is facing centuries of drier and hotter weather. A creaky, aging, frail and vulnerable grid powered by aging generators with razor-thin reserves for peak demand are not found only in Texas. Nor is Texas the only place in which individual people refuse to look up at the sun and realize it offers them all the energy they need for their home, their family, and their business.

The conclusion reasserts itself: as long as we insist on considering only solutions that are industrial, involving huge installations serving vast populations, it will continue to be impossible to save everyone
from inevitable collapse. To the extent, however, that we start thinking about truly sustainable, distributed energy — which is to say, energy made where it is used — it will be not only possible but relatively simple to save anyone.

The worst may be over for ERCOT, as temperatures are forecast to return to more normal misery this weekend, and that guarantees that once again everyone involved will reassure themselves and each other that it was just a drill, If this had been a real emergency, someone would have done something.

[For similar stories see the Energy category. For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]
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5 Responses to Texas Teeters on Blackout’s Edge

  1. SomeoneInAsia says:

    I have myself come across (loud-mouthed) deniers of (anthropogenic) climate change on various message boards who used arguments along the lines of ‘nature produces more carbon dioxide than human activities’ and ‘the current warming is just part of a natural cycle’, and became hostile when others defended the reality of (anthropogenic) climate change. It takes all sorts to make a world.

    I incidentally told a couple of those deniers that I actually couldn’t have cared less about global warming if I happened to lived on another planet; they could then push their agenda all they want for all I care. Since my butt happened to rest on the same planet as theirs, though, I considered myself entitled to express concern about the state of the planet and not to take chances since there’s no other planet for me to go to.

    Just posting a few of my personal experiences in case some of the readers here would be interested.

  2. Tom Lewis says:

    Yes, it’s hard to discuss something with folks who bring nothing to the discussion but a brutish repetition of what they wish to believe. When I wrote Brace for Impact three years ago, I did not discuss climate change very much because I thought other threats — peak oil, food and water shortages, toxic pollution and the like — were all more immediately dangerous to us. Now, I don’t know. The feedback mechanisms have been revving with terrifying speed.

  3. WitsEnd says:

    Tom, positive feedback mechanisms are revving up with terrifying speed, is true, also the sinks are getting saturated or failing. It’s a fascinating contest, isn’t it, to see which of the converging catastrophes hits first, and where. We are just dodging bullets, all of us, now.

    The other fascinating thing to watch is how long it will take the crazy deniers to acknowledge what is happening – maybe they never will. Maybe they will just keep praying and waiting for the rapture.

    Thanks for this chronicle.

    – Gail

  4. Rachel Freeman says:

    One feedback loop that happens in times of high temperatures and drought is that a lack of water leads to nuclear and coal power stations having to shut down; this at the same time that there is peak demand on the system.
    Too bad all the new buildings in the South are built around artificial cooling, rather than with natural cooling designed in. I was in Seville recently and the older buildings all have thick walls, shading, and inner courtyards, and they are cool inside without artifical cooling.