After winter storms continued to barrage the state Tuesday night, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the body overseeing the grid that serves 90 percent of the state’s homes, couldn’t offer a timeline for when power for every Texan would be restored. Over the long weekend, the council had advised local utilities to shed energy use with rolling outages in order to maintain the reliability of the electric system after a surge in demand, or otherwise risk uncontrolled blackouts that will take longer to reverse. Some four million homes in the state had been left in the lurch without energy in the bitter cold—many for over fifty hours—and as of Wednesday morning, 2.7 million homes still lacked power.
As Texans have fled for hotels, bunked with friends and family, or, without options, hunkered down in their homes watching pipes burst and the water in toilet bowls freeze, lawmakers have questioned whether the council has mismanaged the response. On Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott said the situation was “unacceptable” and called for the council’s leaders to resign. State legislators are now planning to investigate what led energy generation to drop off when Texans needed it most.
To help make sense of what led to ERCOT’s trouble handling this energy crisis, Texas Monthly spoke with Joshua Rhodes, an energy guru—who was also frozen out of his South Austin home and had temporarily relocated to a warm location in Dripping Springs. Rhodes is a founding partner at IdeaSmiths LLC energy consulting firm and a research assistant at the University of Texas at Austin whose work focuses on the area of smart grid and bulk electricity systems. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Texas Monthly: What happened with the energy grid, exactly ?
Joshua Rhodes: I’ve never seen all 254 counties of Texas under a winter storm warning at the same time. It happens here and there, but just the scale and magnitude of this is so far beyond anything we’ve seen or planned for.
TM: What do winter conditions do for our energy supply in Texas?
JR: Our electricity system is built around meeting our summer peak demand: the hot August afternoons when everyone wants air conditioning. Why are we able to keep the air conditioners on but not able to keep the heaters on? On the hottest summer day you can imagine, say it’s 105 degrees outside, and you’re trying to keep your home at 75 degrees. That’s a 30-degree difference. If it’s 10 degrees outside and you’re trying to keep your home at 70 degrees, that’s a 60-degree difference. While homes that are built up north are designed to hold heat in, our homes are basically designed to keep heat out and get it out as fast as we can. So, we’re not designed for this.
The other difference between summer and now is that in the summer, there’s no competition for natural gas. The power plants get it because they’re making electricity out of it. But in the winter, about 60 percent of homes in Texas use electricity for heating, and the other 40 percent use natural gas. We have a massive demand for natural gas at the same time as we have a massive demand for electricity, so we don’t have enough natural gas to go around to all the power plants that want it and all the homes that want it.
To compound that, we have some natural gas wells out in West Texas that have gotten so cold they’ve actually frozen, so they can’t put more gas into the system. So we’ve got these two systems, the natural gas systems and the electricity systems, both of which are more intertwined in the winter than they are in the summer, and they’re both being pushed to extremes that they were never really designed for.
TM: Who makes decisions about rolling outages? Is that local utilities or ERCOT?
JR: That’s decided more at the local level. ERCOT tells each one of the transmission distribution utilities, ‘You need to reduce this much demand,’ and it’s up to them to know how to do that and when to rotate. That’s more of a local issue than it is a grid-scale issue, but it’s the part that people are going to be most concerned about because it’s what’s affecting them probably the most right now.
TM: What’s the holdup in getting everyone’s power back up?
JR: We still have one third of our thermal power plants down. We can’t bring on more customers unless we have the power to send to them.
TM: You mentioned frozen natural gas wells. We also have frozen wind turbines. Is there any particular infrastructure culprit?
JR: I don’t really think there’s any one thing you can point your finger at. When ERCOT does planning for winter, they only really count on 10 percent of wind turbine capacity being available. We’re already not relying on it very heavily to be there. While there have been times where wind has produced as much as ERCOT is relying on it, there have been times where they haven’t produced as much as they’re relied on. But at the same time, we’re also short about one third of our thermal power plants, our natural gas, coal, and nuclear. [Wind turbines are expected to supply about 25 percent of the state’s electricity in the winter, and are currently producing about half of that. Coal- and gas-fired plants are expected to make up 60 percent of the state’s energy production this time of year. ERCOT said Wednesday thermal energy was responsible for 60 percent of the energy loss and 40 percent came from wind and solar.]
In the coming weeks and days, there will be studies that will look at what just happened, what was the timeline to the cascading failures that we have right now. There’s no obvious boogey man at this point.
TM: When it comes to frozen wells and wind turbines, or other infrastructure that is physically affected by the cold, are there preventative measures that could have been taken, such as winterizing?
JR: There are plenty of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. It gets a lot colder there than it does here, even today. There are ways of producing gas. All of that infrastructure is site-specific. I would assume it’s more expensive. We could winterize wind turbines better but it would cost more money. We can winterize pipes on power plants, but it would cost more money. We have to decide, what level of risk are we willing to take and what are we willing to pay for?
TM: How could this have been prevented?
JR: Could we have built a grid that would have fared better during this time? Of course we could have. But we could also build a car that could survive every crash you could possibly throw at it, but it would be very expensive and not many people would probably be able to afford it. At some point we do a cost-benefit analysis of how much risk we are willing to take. We have never had weather like this thrown at us, so it’s not surprising to me that we don’t have infrastructure that can support it.
There are no snow plows out on the road. They’d be handy right now, of course, but we don’t use them very often. We don’t have that capability in the state generally because we don’t want to pay for it. We may decide now as a society that we do, but that’s a conversation we’re going to have to have with our collective self, if you will.
TM: I imagine most Texans had never heard of ERCOT before. What do people need to know about it?
JR: ERCOT doesn’t build power plants or design power plants. They basically operate the market that buyers and sellers of electricity operate in. We call them the system operator because they manage the system, dispatch power plants to match supply and demand.
TM: The governor asked lawmakers to look into reforming ERCOT. What do you think of that?
JR: We’re going to have to figure out what went wrong, even though we probably have a pretty good idea of what went wrong. When we actually do the root cause analysis of what’s gone wrong, we’ll have a timeline to know better what went wrong and in what sequence. If some parts of the system had been stronger, like winterized wind turbines, better insulated gas wells and pipes, or better coordination of rotating outages, would we have been able to have more resilience?
Or we can go deeper and look at our market structure itself. ERCOT is a bit unique from other electricity grids in the U.S. In ERCOT, power plants are only paid if they produce energy. Other grids have what we call capacity markets, in which power plants are not only paid for producing energy, but they can be paid for just existing to have the capacity to provide energy if they’re ever called upon. And theoretically, a power plant could exist in that market, get paid, and never produce energy, ever. Texas and its kind of libertarian-type efficiency of market mentality decided that it didn’t want that capacity market to exist and we wanted to rely on an energy-only market. The governor could be talking about things like that—do we need extra things on the market to incentivize the building of more power plants going forward for events such as this?
TM: Most of Texas has its own power grid. Is that a bad thing in situations like this?
JR: It’s probably good and bad. The fact that Texas has the ability to do its own thing and we’re not under federal jurisdiction for the decisions that we make in our system, so people in Washington can’t tell us how to run our power grid, has an appeal to a certain Texas mentality, if you will. Right now, it sure would be helpful if we had connections to other grids because there are other grids on the East Coast right now that have plenty of power that could be providing some energy if we had the extension cords to reach them, but we currently don’t have those, so we’re not able to access that.
TM: Is this something that we need to act on now or is this event a blip on the radar?
JR: Now that we’ve seen it, it’s not just someone saying, ‘Hey, something like this could happen.’ It is actually happening. I do think there are some planning changes we can make. We can plan for colder weather, which may incentivize some to build more power plants to meet this kind of demand.
I think it would be best to take a holistic look at what are the demands we want to meet, and what are the things that can meet those demands at a cost that we’re willing to pay. If we’re going to have events like this, how do we spread blackouts out a bit more in terms of rotating outages and things like that? What we’ve been hearing is that local utilities have to prioritize circuits for things like hospitals and critical infrastructure, your police, fire, EMS. Obviously those things need power because they’re critical to our society. But [we might ask] if we need to rewire some things such that if we have rotating outages again, to have them actually be rotated so people’s pipes don’t freeze and they’re able to at least keep their homes somewhat warm versus the elements. I do think we might need to rethink how that process works.