Who turned the lights off in Texas?
Why am I blogging about electricity in Texas? Because some of my legal career involved electricity supply and demand issues in regulatory hearings, and in advising the Ontario government on restructuring the Province’s electricity system. All electricity utility systems have similar components, albeit in different quantities and configurations.
The Power Failure in Two Words
I can explain the Texas blackout – without playing the blame game – in two words: reliability and cost. There is a trade-off between them. Everyone wants electricity 24/7/365 when they switch the lights on or to heat or air condition their homes. But the cost increases exponentially with increased reliability. A small percentage increase in reliability – say from 99.90% to 99.99% can be many times more costly than the small percentage increase, and even more so to get to 99.999%. At some point the people who manage the system and the consumers who pay for it implicitly decide that they have enough reliability and don’t want to pay for more – until it proves to be insufficient. Then everyone gets angry and blames everyone else, or on tribal lines, blames renewables or fossil fuels as the “main cause”.
Laws and Government Policies Affect System Reliability
The power system is a complex series of components, but ultimately, they all operate within a framework of laws. The laws implement government policies, influencing how much reliability, and at what cost, the system provides. These laws often grant some discretion in setting consumer rates and deciding the design of electricity generation and transmission, but that discretion is also subject to political control.
Causes of Power Failures
Most of the widespread power failures of the past have occurred in the northeastern part of the USA, up into Canada, from Ontario to the eastern coast. The cause has been transmission lines, brought down by ice storms and fallen trees. The generators were able to keep generating, but there was no way to get the power to consumers.
The causes of the Texas power failure were unusual: (i) a failure of local generation, and (ii) a lack of interconnection to other power grids that could have wheeled electricity into Texas when local generation failed. Because the Texas power system is designed for peak summer heat it was not prepared for this extraordinary cold weather. Its wind generators froze and stopped working; likewise the gas wells and pipelines, preventing gas from getting to the generators.
Every failure of reliability will cause property damage, health issues and, in cold weather, several deaths. (A lot more people die of cold and heat.) The public focus now is whose fault it was, but as the anger subsides over time, the questions will be who should do what about it.
This blog post will first explain the likely causes of what went wrong, without assigning blame, and then suggest potential ways of increasing reliability in future. To make all of this comprehensible we first need a description of how electricity systems operate. (You can skip this part if you already know it or aren’t interested.)Continue reading “The Texas Power Failure and What To Do About It”