In postmortems by national publications about what led to the widespread power outages in Texas last week, the state’s independent electrical grid was often blamed, and characterized as a prime example of the state’s hubris. Yet there are sensible reasons for the grid’s relative isolation from the rest of the nation—beyond an instinctive aversion to federal meddling. And while Texans freezing in their homes in mid-February would have welcomed any relief they could get, having a grid that could have drawn more power from other states would have done little to ease the crisis.
Texas lost 46,000 megawatts in the early days of the storm—roughly enough to power 9.2 million homes. Texas has a small interconnect, only about 600 megawatts, with the grid that serves most of the western U.S., but no power was coming across that line. With most of the country also facing bitterly cold temperatures, the rest of the U.S. wouldn’t have had much to spare anyway, said Bill White, the former Houston mayor and former deputy U.S. energy secretary who also once served on the board of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit that oversees grid reliability and security for the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico.
Back in the early days of electrification—the early twentieth century—Texas power companies “interconnected in every direction,” said Julie Cohn, a historian with the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute and author of The Grid: Biography of an American Technology. Those interconnections helped fledgling utilities expand to new markets and conserve generating fuels. With little state or federal regulation at the time, utilities could do what they wanted. Then, in 1935, Congress passed the first federal regulation of utilities, limiting the geographic areas in which they could operate. Texas companies decided to connect mainly with one another rather than submit to the feds. “After that, infrastructure development focused more on strengthening and taking advantage of the ties within the state,” Cohn said.
Texas developed many of the same benefits that it had enjoyed when utilities were connected to more out-of-state generators, but the new grid gave the state sole authority over rates and operations. In the late sixties, when the federal government set up the two grids that serve the rest of the country (as well as a few areas in Texas), the Lone Star State decided to continue going it alone, creating its own grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.
While that kept the feds from regulating power sales, it also meant that the state had few places to turn if it faced sudden shortages or potential outages. The main benefit of interconnections is that they enhance reliability because your neighbor, essentially, has your back. In smaller states, interconnections also facilitate the sharing of generating resources, which lowers costs. This is less of a benefit in a state as big and energy-rich as Texas.
Greater interconnection to other states also would have raised an array of complicated operational and economic issues. It would have, for example, required building more interstate transmission lines, which no one wants in their backyards. Once it was hooked up to more neighboring states, Texas would have to consider the needs of those states and they, along with the feds, would have a say in decisions about how much power was transferred where, and under what conditions. That doesn’t even address who pays for the interconnection. Should it be only Texas customers? Are customers in other grids going to want to pay more to bring Texas on board? “It becomes a pretty complicated operating problem,” Cohn said. “It’s not a simple economic equation either.”
The rest of the nation may roll its eyes and say, “of course Texas has its own grid,” but other grids have problems too. In August 2003, for example, overgrown tree branches in northern Ohio blew into a high-voltage line. An alarm that should have sounded in the control room of FirstEnergy, the local utility, failed. As other lines picked up the slack to take on this additional demand, they tripped offline, resulting in a cascading failure that spread through eight northeastern states and southeastern Canada. Some 50 million people were left without power for two days—the biggest blackout in American history. Eleven people died for reasons tied to the blackout, and the damage cost an estimated $6 billion. Unlike ERCOT, the Eastern interconnection that serves this region has several grid operators. During those sorts of cascading power failures, each operator must decide how to respond—how much power to turn off to how many customers, and when, to manage the crisis.
That kind of widespread blackout has never happened in Texas, although ERCOT acknowledged it got within minutes of one during last week’s freeze. “When you have one operator, that’s an advantage, because you have more control over what to do in an emergency with all the component parts of your system,” Cohn said. ERCOT instituted rolling outages to keep the grid functioning so that full service could be restored more quickly. Customers who experienced longer outages were likely on circuits where equipment such as transformers failed or power lines came down because of ice and high wind.
But there are other benefits to an isolated grid that have nothing to do with reliability. Texas became the biggest U.S. wind energy producer at least in part because our grid is self-contained. The state Legislature set standards for the technology, and those rules were implemented more quickly than if they’d required federal approval or needed to pass muster with grid participants in other states. “People love to put wind and solar in Texas because of the ease,” White said. “You don’t have obstacles that you have on, say, the West Coast.”
When Texas decided to build high-voltage transmission lines to capture wind-generated power, mainly in West Texas, and transmit it to the state’s major cities, those lines were paid for by Texans for the benefit of Texans. Wind projects elsewhere have been hampered by a lack of adequate transmission. “There are all these proposals for big transmission projects all around the country that cross multiple state lines, and they’re basically languishing because there’s so many different regulatory authorities who have a say over whether the line can go there,” Cohn said.
Finally, perhaps the most obvious reason for Texas needing its own grid is the simple fact that it’s so big. The state spans two time zones. It produces coal, natural gas, and uranium, and has access to hydropower, strong winds, and plentiful sunshine.
With that abundance, state leaders have chosen not to be obligated to ship power out of state when Texans might need it most. Our isolated grid didn’t cause the February freeze-out. There were multiple reasons for the disaster, including the state Legislature’s failure to require generators and fuel providers to winterize their lines and facilities—something done in other states that got through the same winter storm without widespread outages. But interconnecting more with other states wouldn’t have solved our grid’s problems. It could have made them worse.
Disclosure: Loren Steffy was hired last fall by the Rockefeller Family Foundation to write a report on abandoned oil and gas wells in Texas that will be released next week by Commission Shift, a newly formed organization that advocates reform of the state’s oversight of the oil and gas industry. Steffy has no association with Commission Shift.
Correction: This article originally misstated the full name of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.