ERCOT Cold-Weather Blackouts Point to the Need for More Advanced Energy

Posted by Erica Glenn on Feb 17, 2021 4:54:58 PM

Texas frozen

Texas is in the midst of a severe and historic winter weather event, which has led to the worst outages the state has experienced in decades. With over 4 million Texans losing power, all eyes are on the state’s grid manager and market operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and market participants like power plant owners and operators, demand side resources, and other grid assets as they work around the clock to restore the grid to normal operating conditions. Defenders of the energy status quo are also using the occasion to cast doubt on advanced energy technologies – especially wind power, on which Texas is a national leader. But they’ve got it exactly backwards. The troubles in Texas point to the need for more advanced energy, not less. 

Starting at 1:25 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 15, ERCOT began implementing emergency procedures, including rolling blackouts, affecting customers across the state. The blackouts became necessary to preserve the ERCOT grid from total collapse and maintain service to critical customers like hospitals and first responders after soaring electricity demand outstripped available supplies from generators. In total, as much as 34 GW of electric generation capacity in ERCOT was out of service, most of it forced offline by the extreme cold temperatures. 

Even as the events were unfolding, some were quick to assign blame to wind turbines that had frozen. The data tells a different story, however. The majority of forced outages of power plants caused by the extreme temperatures have been thermal plants, fueled by natural gas, coal, and nuclear, which together make up more than two-thirds of the power generation Texas planned to rely upon this winter. Analysts estimate that about 27 GW of coal, nuclear, and gas capacity has been unavailable, because the cold has driven up demand for natural gas for heating, thermal plants suffered equipment failures from the cold, and natural gas wellheads even froze. 

While ice forced some wind turbines – about 4 GW worth – to shut down, it was a small part of the problem, and a small part of the generating capacity Texas expected to rely on during this winter. Wind only comprises 25% of the state’s energy mix this time of year. According to Bloomberg, and confirmed by ERCOT data, wind generation actually exceeded the grid operator’s daily forecast through the prior weekend. Solar power was slightly below forecast on Monday, but as of Tuesday morning was overperforming. Even home heating has also been affected. Local gas distribution companies are encouraging conservation while notifying customers to be prepared for possible gas system interruptions due to frozen natural gas wellheads, disrupting supply to homes.

“No technologies were spared in this storm of the century,” Suzanne Bertin, Managing Director of Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance (TAEBA), told Bloomberg. The solution, she said, involves “not putting all of our eggs in one technology basket.”  

This is not the first time ERCOT has had to deal with an extreme cold weather event. In 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) prepared a report with recommendations on how to improve system reliability following a severe winter weather event in Texas. The extent to which preparation for winter events has evolved over the past decade will likely be a topic of an upcoming House State Affairs and Energy Resources Committees joint hearing on February 25 announced Tuesday by House Speaker Dade Phelan. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has also announced that the Senate Business and Commerce committee will hold hearings to investigate the factors that have led to these sustained power outages across Texas. In addition, Governor Abbott has declared ERCOT reform an emergency item for the legislature. FERC and NERC have also announced they will again conduct a joint investigation, where the extent to which their 2011 recommendations were heeded and implemented is likely to be a central issue.

While ERCOT’s reliability will be an ongoing topic of conversation during the legislative session now under way, it should not distract us from the opportunity to build additional resilience and reliability in the system through greater investment in advanced energy technologies. The ERCOT grid will need additional investments in transmission to ensure that the lowest cost forms of power can move freely through the system to reach customers wherever they are on the grid. And, as the system grows, we need to ensure that energy is used as efficiently as possible, to save money for customers and make best use of the generating assets available. Energy storage, as well as hybrid systems such as solar-plus-storage, will play a greater role in enhancing flexibility of the grid, while onsite, distributed energy resources and demand response will provide additional local reliability for homes and businesses. Customers won’t just benefit from increased reliability and resiliency in these types of events, though; an analysis published by TAEBA shows Texans could save nearly $5.5 billion by better integrating these distributed energy resources. 

“We should be clear,” added Bertin. “In this extreme weather event, advanced energy was not the problem. Going forward, it can be the solution.”

Texas is the world’s energy leader, and we need to leverage that leadership to implement an innovative mix of solutions to combat extreme weather emergencies, whether it’s a polar vortex event in winter or heat and hurricane in the summer. The solutions needed in Texas and in states around the country must draw on a variety of advanced energy resources to ensure a more flexible, responsive, and reliable energy system. 

To learn more about how to increase the resiliency and reliability of Texas’ energy system, download TAEBA’s policy priorities by clicking below. 

Download TAEBA Policy Priorities

Topics: 21st Century Electricity System, Wholesale Markets, Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance, Texas