WORLD Why can severe weather bring massive blackout to US energy capital

WORLD

Why can severe weather bring massive blackout to US energy capital

Xinhua

15:11, February 20, 2021

HOUSTON, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- It has been five days since a severe winter storm brought massive blackout to the southern U.S. state of Texas. As of Friday afternoon, there are still over 170,000 Texans out of power.

Vehicles move on a snow-capped road in Houston, Texas, the United States, on Feb. 15, 2021. (Photo: Xinhua)

In a state boasting abundant oil and gas, millions of people have been left in freezing temperatures and darkness for days in this severe weather unseen in a century.

Meanwhile, lack of preparedness, weak leadership and isolated power grid added insult to injury.

● LACK OF PREPAREDNESS

The emergency exposed the failures of the state's basic infrastructure. According to officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the energy grid operator for most of the state, when the winter storm came on Sunday, natural gas plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold.

At the same time, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly and demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heater to stay warm.

After temperatures plummeted and snow covered large parts of the state Sunday night, the ERCOT warned increased demand might lead to short-term, rotating blackouts. Instead, huge portions of the largest cities in Texas went dark for days. The council later admitted having underestimated the power demand.

In Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city, nearly 60 percent of households and businesses were without power on Tuesday. Of the total installed capacity to the electric grid, about 40 percent went offline during the storm, according to the ERCOT.

Officials said that the state's power system was simply no match for the deep freeze, but energy and policy experts believed the state's decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.

In fact, this year's massive blackout was not the first one in Texas. In 2011, a similar storm froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. According to a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, more thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented the outages.

It seemed the lesson had not been learnt after a decade as Texas power generators still haven't made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline.

Dan Woodfin, ERCOT senior director of system operations, acknowledged that there was no requirement to prepare power infrastructure for extremely low temperatures. "Those are not mandatory, it's a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things," he said earlier this week. "There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point."

Experts believed that Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state's power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for severe weather to the power companies. And many of them chose against the costly upgrades.

● WEAK LEADERSHIP

The Texas government's failures in the face of a winter storm have been criticized by Texans. Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists.

"It's a great state with a faltering state government," read an analysis story published by The Texas Tribune. "The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them."

From the beginning of the disaster, politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott have pointed other organizations to take responsibility.

On Monday, Abbott said the massive outages were caused by private power companies that "fell short," expressing frustration that power generators hadn't done enough to ensure the flow of electricity.

Abbott also criticized the ERCOT for not doing enough to winterize power generators.

"I think after what happened in 2011, an assessment was not made to gauge for this type of event," said Abbott. "We need to calibrate for this type of weather to make sure that the companies that are contracted with to provide the power generation in the state of Texas are going to be capable of providing power generation in these ultra cold temperatures."

Facing growing questions and blames, the ERCOT gave their version of explanation, saying winterizing the power grid is not their responsibility.

"We don't own the generation units," ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said. "We don't own the transmission. We're really just managing the overall transmission system and dispatching, putting generators on and off the grid."

He added that winterization will need to be undertaken by the entities who own the physical assets out in the field.

"We're willing to work and help and make sure those are effective and happy to help with any of the industry on that," Magness continued. "But it's not really our role to do winterization."

Until now, no organizations or politicians have provided any timetable as to when power can be fully restored in the state.

● ISOLATED GRID

According to experts, a deregulated energy market largely isolated from the rest of the country's power grid is also part of the reason for the massive blackout.

There are three grids in the Lower 48 states of the United States: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and Texas.

The Texas grid is run by the ERCOT, which was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965. It was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.

The agency carried additional responsibilities of staying out of the reach of federal regulators and keeping the Texas grid separated from the rest of the country. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate electric transmission.

"Freedom from federal regulation was a cherished goal -- more so because Texas had no regulation until the 1970s," writes Richard D. Cudahy in a 1995 article, "The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection."

In fact, the Texas grid is not entirely isolated. It has three connections to Mexico and two connections to the eastern U.S. grid. During this week's winter storm, so much power went offline that other grids couldn't close the gap, since other grids were also impacted by the storm.

Reports said that a possible sixth interconnection project is being studied. There is another proposal which would link the three big U.S. grids together in New Mexico, but Texas' top utility regulator has shown little interest for participating.

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