Bad assumptions can drive out good comprehension. This notably applies to the Texas blackout.
I’m as guilty as anyone. On first hearing the blackout news, I thought cold weather had disabled some of the power generation plants, causing the customers they fed to lose electricity.
That’s not what happened, as a recent article in the Texas Tribune makes clear.
It is true that the cold disabled some generation capacity, reducing the supply of electricity, but the cold also increased the demand for electricity. The way electricity works, a demand surge in relation to supply can damage the equipment used to produce and distribute it. Resultant fires and explosions with loss of life are a real danger. For this reason, parts of the grid are designed to automatically “trip” offline the instant a risky imbalance between electrical supply and demand is detected.
This is a good thing, but there’s a complication. When isolated parts of the grid “trip” the remainder of the grid still needs to maintain a balance between electrical supply and demand. Human operators are therefore assigned to monitor the whole grid and respond to the risk of emerging stresses. If, as happened in Texas, they cannot increase the supply of electricity, their only option is to reduce the demand. They must choose among options for turning off the feed to groups of customers. And that’s what they did.
In a way, the blackout had nothing to do with the energy sources used to generate the power. It had everything to do with maintaining a safe balance between the available supply and the unavoidable demand for electricity.
But in a way, the energy sources used to generate electricity were crucially important. The reason is that electrical generation from renewable energy sources cannot scale up to increase supply during harshly cold weather. In fact, it necessarily scales down, making the balance between supply and demand more troublesome to manage.
Ideally, this problem doesn’t occur with the non-renewable energy sources, but you still have to “engineer in” the capability to increase supply during harshly cold weather if you want that option to be part of the balancing act.
Put another way, you could, conceivably, engineer a power grid that includes some power generation from renewable energy sources, plus scalable power generation from non-renewable energy sources. But, for various reasons — none of them purely technical — Texas didn’t do that.
Thus the blackout occurred as a combination of systems automatically tripping offline due to unsafe electrical load balances and human decisions to cancel demand by cutting off customers. That the lights went out because the equipment froze during bad weather is the wrong assumption.