In Texas, Electrical Balance More Significant Than Energy Sources

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.

5 thoughts on “In Texas, Electrical Balance More Significant Than Energy Sources

  1. Not bad. But you missed the mark a bit with this last sentence . . .

    “That the lights went out because the equipment froze during bad weather is the wrong assumption.”

    A better statement would be . . . “That the lights went out ONLY because the equipment froze during bad weather is the wrong assumption.”

    Because, the reality is that it was a combination of increased demand and decreased output that created the dangerous imbalance.

    Back in the day when I was a young finance manager at GE I worked for GE’s inhouse energy think-tank (Electric Power Research Institute (“EPRI”). They were the ones called on figure out what happened in the infamous blackout of 1965. Simple answer – a minor outage cascaded, stressed the next weakest part of the system somewhere which protected itself by going offline and thus reinforcing the rapidly escalating problem. Kind of like dominoes falling. Seems obvious now, but it was a mystery then.

    What they learned is still highly relevant for those people charged with keeping the grid on-line, in balance and safe. A few seconds of major imbalance can have disastrous physical consequences. In that 1965 incident the rotating parts of large generators were instantly destroyed by the sudden torques. These were made of steel and about five feet in diameter – twisted like they were made of dough. The decisions to shed load very quickly are absolutely critical.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Here is a Texas success story about why El Paso came through unscathed.

      https://www.texasmonthly.com/news/el-paso-electric-winter-storm-2021/

      Note winterization of power supplies and grid connection. Interestingly enough, the grid connection is partly why winterization was an incentive. El Paso could sell power in winter to other states suffering bad storms.

      So there is a lot of blame to go around, but the one part of Texas that didn’t act “Texan” with regard to power generation did just fine.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I’ve posted that information for four days now.

        Texas now appears to be a poster child for deregulation. Especially for those whose power was NOT affected getting 4- and 5-digit electrical bills.

        Don’s market working to its finest. IT fails and those not affected get hit with the bill.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Worry not. The freest market in energy will be shown to be not free enough.

          The fact is electricity is not a consumer luxury. Like other infrastructure it is essential to the point where failure is deadly and economically catastrophic. Like broken bridges, aging water and sewage plants, healthcare, etc.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. RE: “But you missed the mark a bit with this last sentence . . .”

      I don’t think so, logically. The assumption remains wrong either way.

      Like

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