Texas-Style Blackouts Are the Future

Source: The Wall Street Journal (behind paywall).

My favorite WSJ writer, Holman Jenkins, captures a number of lessons to be learned from the Texas blackout.

In Texas, every kind of power source suffered a variety of mechanical malfunctions due to an extraordinary icing episode, with wind power taking the worst hit by percentage. In the Northeast, the perennial challenge is trees that neighbors are reluctant to see cut down. But you only have to dig a quarter-inch into the reliability literature to see that, while weather is always with us, and while “major events” will tend to steal the show, renewable intermittency is the new systematic challenge to grid reliability. Renewables are a puzzle both directly and indirectly because they suck up investible resources that might be used for other purposes.

Engineering challenges can be solved, but the real menace is an unwillingness, expressed through politics, to pay for the greenhouse reductions we say we want.

Texans had a rough week, say it again, because of an outlier cold snap that its system was designed to handle by shutting down. Temperatures are headed back into the 50s and 60s this weekend. You, me and everyone else live in utility districts where certain emergencies, such as those caused by trees on power lines or wildfires, are also designed to be handled by systems shutting down. We live with this.

But I doubt many people will be phlegmatic when Texas-like rolling blackouts come to the Northeast or New England one of these winters, as they almost did in the 2014 polar vortex. Falling trees won’t be the culprit. The guilty party will be our choice not to invest in pipelines and backup gas plants to support our desired renewables in the face of cold spells a lot more predictable than those that landed on Texas.

This outcome is all but guaranteed unless we get a better discussion than the one we’re having. Then something else will become manifest: When the design performance limitations of utility systems come into play, it will always be in the interest of politicians and utility executives to change the subject to global warming.

It is not just politicians who change the subject. Every proponent of renewable-energy power generation tries to change the subject in ways to avoid blaming Texas windmills for the outages. This isn’t helpful, because — as any engineer will tell you — electricity can be reliable, or cheap, but not both.

24 thoughts on “Texas-Style Blackouts Are the Future

  1. “This isn’t helpful, because — as any engineer will tell you — electricity can be reliable, or cheap, but not both”

    Actually, that is a silly exaggeration. Texas, for example, with its vast reserves of natural gas and its windy, sunny plains could easily have enjoyed BOTH cheap and reliable electricity. All it had to do was spend a relative pittance on winterization and/or hook itself up to the national grid for reliable backup. Simple.

    Why did it not do that? A combination of unregulated for-profit greed, doctrinaire pro-market thinking and unwarranted Texas pride.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. RE: “Texas, for example, with its vast reserves of natural gas and its windy, sunny plains could easily have enjoyed BOTH cheap and reliable electricity. All it had to do was spend a relative pittance on winterization and/or hook itself up to the national grid for reliable backup.”

      In other words, it could have had more expensive “cheap” energy. Not a very logical or useful point to make.

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        1. Your winterization “pittance” is nevertheless added cost, and that’s the point of describing cost and reliability as a trade-off.

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          1. What part of “pittance” do you not understand? “Cheap” is a relative term and Texas had within its grasp cheap and reliable electricity. It failed to achieve reliable for the reasons I listed.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. RE: “What part of “pittance” do you not understand?”

            The same part that an engineer doesn’t understand.

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          3. “The same part that an engineer doesn’t understand.”

            Looks like engineering is yet another field you know little about. In real life electrical engineers have to consider economic ramifications of their designs ALL THE TIME. Any decent engineer would know that a tremendous increase in reliability in exchange for a relative pittance would be a good thing.

            Liked by 2 people

          4. RE: “Any decent engineer would know that a tremendous increase in reliability in exchange for a relative pittance would be a good thing.”

            Any decent engineer would ask, “What’s a ‘pittance’ “?

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        1. Why? What do you think I’d find.?

          Concerning ROI, Jenkins makes the point that power grids in Texas and elsewhere are designed to shut down during inclement weather. That’s the engineering solution for preserving the investment when reliability fails.

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          1. You would find that the relationship between increased investment in the infrastructure would allow for maintaining operation of the revenue producing resource producing ongoing ROI and OBTW keep customers from dying which often reduces revenue and tends to negatively impact a company’s corporate image.

            It’s not a bummer sticker (found in an internet article) level of complexity. Ergo the classes…

            Liked by 1 person

          2. ,,,”reliability has a price tag.”

            Yes it does. But keep in mind that the “reliable” sources you are talking about become unreliable when they are not protected properly from the vagaries of Mother Nature. Especially after Texas had been warned after 2011 and 2014 they needed to protect their energy infrastructure systems. The “powers” that be decided that profits were more important than reliability.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. “In other words” ?

            You have no understanding of finance or economics beyond the superficial level you glean from other peoples comments. I’m quite serious when I suggest that some fundamental courses in both could provide some actual insight which could prevent your embarrassing and ignorant comments.

            Liked by 2 people

          4. In my line of work, proposal writing, ROI was a factor in the equations used to calculate the “price to win,” defined as the lowest price the company could offer for contracted services without losing money. Because corporate set the ROI number we had to use, the “bid price” had to be adjusted based on those costs a program could control during execution. In effect, the price to win was the reliability factor the bid price had to meet in order for the proposal to be approved for submission.

            So, yes, “In other words…”

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          5. Having started and sold two IT/Mgt consulting firms I’m well-versed in the Proposal process. And your comments on your role in that regard highlight the problem.

            I am referencing the process through which “corporate set(s) the ROI”. THAT is where the work is done in terms of metrics and probability. Actually, helping companies execute that process was/is a very lucrative business model.

            Assuming one knows what they’re doing…

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Texas “pride” goeth…..

      Short sighted deniers will try to endlessly“change the subject” and the focus needs to be on “better and smarter” as we transition. Time will take care of the “static”…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. RELIABLY UNRELIABLE. That is simply what green energy is. There seems to be plenty of deflection from green defenders that try to claim that adding deicing would have solved all the problems. It may have helped some but not a cure as the 2019 polar vortex shut down deiced systems all over the north. Deicing doesn’t help with green energy failures during extreme heat either like in California. GND proponents are pushing a pipe dream of energy utopia but it is simply RELIABLY UNRELIABLE.
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.usatoday.com/amp/6772677002

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    1. And the fossil fuel (or thermal energy sources as JTR used the other day) DIDN’T fail? They froze worse than the windmills. The supposedly “RELIABLE” energy sources became completely UNRELIABLE because the Texas energy companies thought more about profit than maintaining a working energy supply.

      Trying to put the entirety of the Texas failure (and blaming AOC and the GND…which is still just a talking point) is one of the more idiotic finger pointing exercises going on these days.

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      1. Uh, no the fossil fuel systems did not freeze “worse” than the green energy. There were some cold and freezing related issues but overall the fossil fuel systems, especially NG, did remarkably well in tamping up but still couldn’t replace the loss of the green energy. Missing the point as usual I see. Green energy may be good as an augmentation to more reliable systems but is just not reliable enough to fully power the electric grid as a primary source and would only result in massive blackouts during routine and more extreme weather. That is what greenies try to push but it is blatantly clear that is false.

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