When record cold temperatures slammed through Texas in mid-February, soaring electrical needs pushed through the state's grid, and catastrophe followed. Texas' electrical infrastructure was ill-prepared for such demand, and the state's unregulated system collapsed, leaving almost 5 million homes without power in the face of bitter cold. How could Texas' utilities have been so poorly prepared, and how could such a collapse occur?
Western Today recently chatted with WWU Assistant Professor of Engineering & Design Amr Radwan, whose research focuses on increasing the resiliency of the nation's electrical grid, to ask him how this disaster occurred and how it could have been prevented.
Western Today: Amr, a lot of discussion after the collapse of the Texas grid centered on the fact that it is autonomous - it isn't connected to the rest of the nation's grid. Is this true, and if so, what was the benefit of constructing a system in that way?
AR: "The Texas grid, also known as the Texas Interconnection, is isolated from the major US grids and the reason for this structure is not technical but rather political. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which gave the Federal Power Commission the authority to oversee the sales of any interstate electricity. Given the substantial oil and gas resources in Texas, the power utility companies chose to maintain their operation within the state and avoid crossing the interstate lines to stay behind the jurisdiction of the federal regulators. Nowadays, the Texas Interconnection is mostly managed by the electric reliability council of Texas, ERCOT, and is not subjected to the Federal Energy Reliability Commission’s jurisdiction.
The Texas Interconnection operates as an isolated island and this contributed to the quick failure of the grid. There was a significant unbalance between the generated and the demanded power due the sudden increase of the demand with the shortage in the natural gas supplies. The only option was to maintain the power supply to critical loads such as hospitals and emergency call centers which in turns left many Texans without power for days. In emergency conditions, planned rolling incidents of blackouts among neighborhoods would shave the peak loads but this was not possible for ERCOT due to the deficiency in the supply."
Western Today: Another word attached to the failure is "unregulated." What does that term mean in terms of the Texas electrical grid?
AR: "The electricity market in Texas is unregulated which means that the power consumers have the option to choose the electricity provider from multiple suppliers including the municipality utility companies and third-party retail service providers. Look at that in a similar way to the internet service providers where we have the option to get the internet service from multiple providers and have the ability to switch between them.
It was expected that deregulation of the electricity market will allow unlimited competitions among multiple service providers to bring the utility bill down and improve the delivered service. Apparently the quality of the delivered service is not there."
Western Today: Is Texas' system unique to the United States, or could a similar catastrophe occur elsewhere?
AR: "Let me first clarify that the electrical power system in North America is not a unified single grid and this is simply due to the massive land area and the huge population. For instance, it would not be technically efficient and economically feasible to generate electricity in Washington State to supply demand loads in Florida. Therefore, the electrical power grid in North America is divided into five independent grids, or interconnections. The Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection are the major two power grids which cover the majority of Canada and the U.S. from the east to the west coast. In addition to that, we have the Alaska Interconnection, the Texas Interconnection, and the Quebec Interconnection which are three minor grids. It is worth mentioning that the five interconnections are independent and they are not normally synchronized, or tied, to each other. However, there are few high voltage dc links that connect them to allow limited power transfers under a few conditions.
Given the vast capacity and the many supporting power plants in the two major Eastern and Western Interconnections that cover most of the US, it is less likely to have a similar catastrophe. Yes, we still remember the major blackout in the Northeast and Midwestern US back in 2003 but the reason behind this incident was a software bug that released a false alarm, which is very different from what happened in Texas."
Western Today: How difficult or risky is it to restart a grid that has collapsed so completely?
AR: "The process of restoring a collapsed electrical grid is called a black start, and this process might be challenging and very time consuming depending on the size of the blackout and the capacity of the grid. Generally, there are black start protocols that should be followed to gradually increase the operation efficiency of the idled power stations. Small diesel generators dedicated for the black start conditions are utilized to start larger generators which are then used to start the main power station following a specific sequence. Back to the blackout of 2003, most of the grid was restored within 7 hours. For Texas, the story is different because there was not enough supply available to restore the grid in a timely manner."
Western Today: Many Texas officials including the governor initially blamed renewable energy sources such as wind turbines for the collapse, but this has since been proven not to be the case, as frozen natural gas lines were the chief cause of the catastrophe. Why do you think there was such initial willingness to blame renewable energy - is this just politics or simply a lack of education?
AR: "I think it is a lack of education and misinformation. We do not have to forget that Texas is the largest producer of the wind energy in the U.S. Almost 20% of the net electricity generated in Texas comes from renewable energy resources. I would say Texas is a great advocator for the clean energy but we still need to work more on raising the public awareness of the role of renewable energy resources."
Western Today: Finally, what steps do you think need to be taken so that Texans never have to endure a blackout like this again?
AR: "We are still in an early stage to know the exact roots of the problem but I think the lack of preparation has a major contribution to this failure. Texas is not known for harsh winters but I believe that meteorologists should be involved more in the operation of the Texas Interconnection to better prepare for future inclement weather conditions.
On the big scale, it is important to keep supporting innovation in research topics related to the grid modernization to improve the operation of the existing infrastructure. This also includes more research on the installation of high voltage dc links in between the existing interconnections which will certainly improve the reliability and efficiency of the nation’s electrical grid."
Amr Radwan has taught at Western since 2018, and received his doctorate in Energy Systems from University of Alberta in 2016. His research interests include the integration of renewable energy resources and smart active power systems. He recently received a grant from the Electrical Power Research Institute to research how to increase the resiliency of renewable energy resources during instances of weak grid conditions.