What the blackout crisis reveals about renewables, grid

By E&E News staff | 02/19/2021 07:29 AM EST

The Texas blackout disaster this week fired debate about everything from frozen wind turbines to the future of the Southwest grid. What is true?

Icicles are pictured dropping from a roof in Austin, Texas, on Monday, as icy weather enveloped the state and caused widespread power outages.

Icicles are pictured dropping from a roof in Austin, Texas, on Monday, as icy weather enveloped the state and caused widespread power outages. Sandy Carson/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said yesterday that he’s asking state lawmakers to mandate the winterization of the electric system in the wake of a deadly storm that stretched the Texas grid nearly to collapse.

"I’m calling for the funding needed to ensure that this winterization and modernization occurs," Abbott said during a news conference. Winterization involves practices such as de-icing wind turbines and adding insulation or heating to prevent parts from freezing at conventional power plants.

More than 4 million homes and businesses went dark this week as record-setting low temperatures, snow and ice covered the state.


The power outages led to a series of water problems as water pressure dropped. About 13.8 million people were affected by boil-water notices, outages or other issues, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said yesterday.

Abbott has previously called for reforms at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s main power grid. His announcement yesterday came as the Biden administration and Congress also pledged to investigate the power outages.

The governor said yesterday that he has been in discussions with the lieutenant governor and Texas lawmakers. He also asked the Legislature to investigate what happened at ERCOT and its response to the winter storm.

"Everyone knows how challenging the past few days have been for our fellow Texans," he said. "I want everyone to know that all of us in the state of Texas believe it is completely unacceptable that you had to endure one minute of the challenge that you faced."

Abbott said Texans deserve answers about why shortfalls happened and how they will be corrected, adding that he wants to ensure this never happens again.

"We need to find out if the leaders of ERCOT sent the correct information to the generators of power in the state so that all generators of power in the state were up and running to provide the power that was needed to feed into the grid so they wouldn’t get compromised," he said.

ERCOT officials have said there aren’t mandatory winterization rules for power generators in Texas, despite several warnings over the years (Energywire, Feb. 18).

But there’s also plenty of blame to go around. The ERCOT grid is largely unconnected to the rest of the country, and some in Congress are exploring the possibility of adding more connections to neighboring power grids.

And both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and another regulatory entity, the North American Electric Reliability Corp., also oversee some aspects of winterization.

ERCOT itself doesn’t produce power — it acts as the go-between between power generators and the local utility companies that deliver electricity to homes and businesses. President and CEO Bill Magness said his staff ordered local utility companies to implement controlled outages early Monday morning to avoid a wider, catastrophic blackout that could have hit the whole state (Energywire, Feb. 18).

Abbott’s push to reform the system will likely have to include a variety of players — the generators, ERCOT and maybe even local utility companies. It comes as federal regulators and lawmakers are also looking at improvements to the national electric grid, and possibly adding more connections between Texas and other regional grids.

Here’s a look at three critical questions raised by the power crisis:

Can frozen wind turbines and power plants be prevented?

Both wind turbines and natural gas infrastructure froze over in parts of Texas as the combination of sustained subfreezing temperatures, precipitation and high humidity created conditions ripe for ice in many parts of the state.

Unless they are equipped with heating or de-icing features, wind turbines cannot operate when large amounts of ice accumulate on the blades. Those features are not standard among turbines in Texas, where the temperature typically doesn’t dip below freezing for hours or days at a time. Turbines in many parts of the state have therefore been unable to produce electricity.

Similarly, natural gas plants in the Lone Star State and other relatively warm parts of the country are often built in the open air, which reduces heat in the summer but also exposes them to the cold, ERCOT officials said this week.

But in light of the deadly and prolonged outages in Texas, conversations about energy planning and coordination among gas and electric companies in Texas are "sure to be revisited," said Todd Snitchler, president and CEO of the Electric Power Supply Association.

"Certainly future planning throughout the country will need to incorporate even extreme and unlikely events — public health and safety depends on it," Snitchler said.

The preparation has been different in places such as New England, where energy facilities are built in anticipation of long and snowy winters, said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association. For example, power plants are built in heated buildings to withstand the cold, and gas pipelines are installed far below the Earth’s surface to better insulate them, Dolan said.

Lubricants are also applied at gas facilities and related infrastructure as necessary to stave off ice, he said.

"An analogy would be getting an anti-freeze weatherization for your car," Dolan said.

Buildings tend to be better insulated in cold climates, as well, said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University who studies energy policy. In Texas, insulation systems are relatively weak, which caused demand for natural gas and electricity to skyrocket during the cold snap, Jenkins said.

While cold-proof gas infrastructure is common in northern climates, retrofitting infrastructure in Texas — from homes to oil and gas production sites — could be expensive, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of oil and gas consulting firm Accufacts. On the other hand, the possibility of more severe weather events means that utilities and regulators should do a better job of planning for the worst, Kuprewicz said.

"The key is to clearly state and recognize the ambient temperatures that one is designed for. Such design for critical infrastructure should not be designed on the cheap as Texas is going to find out when the total bill final comes in for this whoops experiment," Kuprewicz said in an email.

While wind power represents a smaller portion of Texas’ electricity than gas and contributed less to the power lost, some engineers say the failure of wind turbines during the storm highlights the need for more widespread and cost-effective de-icing systems on turbines across the United States. De-icing systems on wind turbines can be expensive and energy-intensive, but researchers are trying to find ways to make them more efficient, said Hui Hu, a professor of aerospace engineering at Iowa State University.

"There are some studies that have been done about ways to de-ice, and they found it costs about 50% of the electricity generated by turbines to do the de-icing itself," said Hu, who is researching novel systems for preventing ice buildup on turbines. "It’s very inefficient. That’s why we’re trying to minimize that power consumption."

In the past, winterizing Texas wind turbines was seen as unnecessary, said Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association. But the storm in Texas is raising questions about whether infrastructure across the state needs to be upgraded, including wind power, Zichal said.

"Much like the rest of Texas infrastructure, including transportation, water, and home design, all aspects of the Texas energy system will need to learn from this unprecedented weather event," she said in an email.

Was the isolated Texas grid to blame?

The disaster also is raising questions about whether the state’s long-standing policies of deregulating its main wholesale power market and isolating the ERCOT grid from the rest of the country backfired.

Connecting the state’s grid to its neighbors is an attractive idea, but it may not have prevented the power outages that occurred this week, according to analysts.

Most of the country’s other power systems serve multistate regions, allowing them to shift power along their transmission wires to the places that need it. Some of them also have mechanisms known as capacity markets that allow them to pay generating companies to maintain extra power.

But the grids that are closest to Texas also had problems during the storm, said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

The Southwest Power Pool, which serves Oklahoma, Kansas, and other Southwestern and Midwestern states, also had controlled outages during the storm, although they weren’t as extreme as those in Texas and didn’t last as long.

"It would be difficult for us to, in most instances — I’m not saying in all instances — to find power to buy," Bullock said.

Dave Tuttle, a research fellow at the University of Texas, Austin’s Energy Institute, said ERCOT has gotten high marks for its performance in other areas. It’s been able to integrate large amounts of wind power in the last decade, and it’s starting to absorb large-scale solar power, without sacrificing reliability.

"The problem wasn’t the wholesale market; the problem was generators that didn’t have adequate winterization," he said. "They’re two different problems."

Still, Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the Texas outages show a lack of long-term planning. ERCOT lacked proper plans to deal with the rapid drop in available power, and it didn’t have contingency plans for catastrophes, he said.

One solution would be smaller, local networks that can distribute locally generated power like solar and wind. Microgrids can be used to bolster power at hospitals, police stations and other critical locations.

"Microgrids can be networked locally to help each other in critical circumstances by adjusting loads locally," Shahidehpour said in a statement yesterday.

What will the White House, Congress and Texas lawmakers do?

The White House plans to lead an effort aimed at hardening critical infrastructure to better withstand extreme weather, President Biden’s homeland security adviser and deputy national security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told reporters.

"Climate change is real, and it’s happening now, and we’re not adequately prepared for it," said Sherwood-Randall, a former deputy secretary to Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. "Power grids across our country, particularly in Texas, are overloaded by the demands that are placed on them under these circumstances, and the infrastructure is not built to withstand these extreme conditions."

She did not have details on what the effort might entail but noted that it would require technology, as well as collaboration among the federal government, states, local communities and the private sector.

She noted that Texas has elected to isolate its grid but said that "going forward, there is an important conversation to be had around how we can enhance the resilience of our critical infrastructure to meet the needs of all our citizens."

"We know we can’t just react to extreme weather events," she said. "We actually need to plan for them and prepare for them."

Both chambers of the Texas Legislature, meanwhile, are scheduled to hold hearings on the power outages next week.

Separately, the state Senate Jurisprudence Committee plans to hold its own hearings, according to a statement. State Sen. Joan Huffman (R) said she looks forward to questioning leaders of ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas "in a public forum, because the people of Texas deserve answers and this committee will demand them," the release said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who noted that she has a daughter living in Houston who has no water amid pipes bursting in the cold, said the House Energy and Commerce Committee will investigate the outage.

"To lose water and service for my family is one thing, but for people who don’t have so many options, it’s just heartbreaking," Pelosi said. "This was, in many ways, predictable in a long range of weatherizing the infrastructure of energy in the state."

She reiterated her push for Congress to pass Biden’s COVID-19 relief legislation, noting that it contains $50 billion to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s aid fund.

"It’s a question of needing water and food and energy and vaccines and the rest," she said. "We really have to be on top of that."

The Energy and Commerce Committee also will look at the crisis in Texas.

Panel member Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) suggested renewables need further review, although ERCOT said that 60% of the generation that failed came from conventional gas, coal and nuclear plants.

"Congress needs to gather the facts and understand the root causes of this energy crisis before speeding ahead with new renewable energy mandates that shift away from a reliable existing fleet," he said, noting that Texas leads the nation in adopting renewable power. "As investments are made in new energy production and energy infrastructure, the reliability of those systems must always be the priority."

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said Texas’ energy sector failed to take climate change and extreme weather into account. The committee also will look at previous reports that warned Texas to bulk up for storms, he said in a statement.

The lack of connection between ERCOT and the rest of the country "probably didn’t help matters," Pallone said.

Reporters Edward Klump, Lesley Clark, Miranda Willson, Carlos Anchondo and Mike Lee contributed.