The catastrophic failure of Texas’ power grid as temperatures plummeted Sunday evening wasn’t an unforeseen possibility, Rather, it was an issue some had warned state officials about for years, according to at least one energy expert.
The problems causing millions of customers to go more than 24 hours without power during some of the coldest days on record can’t be blamed on issues like wind turbines freezing, said Ed Hirs, a University of Houston Energy Fellow and professor of energy economics.
Instead, they have everything to do with how the system is structured in Texas, Hirs said.
“In the state’s enthusiasm for deregulating the electric market, the legislature and then-Gov. George Bush re-created an old-style Soviet Union purchasing bureau, called ERCOT,” Hirs said.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, is charged with overseeing the state’s power grid. Texas receives most of its power via the Texas Interconnection, a power grid separate from the rest of the country.
Officials with the Electric Reliability Council on Tuesday morning announced they expected they might be able to restore some customers by the afternoon because of additional wind and solar output, combined with more thermal generation.
But the number of outages remained high Tuesday afternoon, officials said.
Calls and emails to Electric Reliability Council’s media relations line went unreturned.
Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, on Tuesday called for joint hearings with the House state affairs and energy resource committees to review what led to the statewide blackouts.
Phelan set a tentative date for Feb. 25 for the hearing.
“We must cut through the finger-pointing and hear directly from stakeholders about the factors that contributed to generation staying down at a time when families needed it most,” Phelan said.
Hirs, meanwhile, audibly laughed when asked when he thought the system might return to normal.
Texas’ power grid for years has suffered because generators that were unable to earn a return on capital went offline, and there was little incentive to reinvest and keep equipment in good working condition, Hirs said.
“They’ve structured everything the wrong way, and it’s come home to roost,” Hirs said.
Even now, there’s every incentive for generators to hold back on power because they make more during emergencies, Hirs said.
“Why would you put all your generation capacity online, available to the grid, if you’re only going to get a lower price?” Hirs said.
Some elected officials, such as state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, blamed wind energy and other issues for the week’s blackouts.
“There are a lot of upset people all over the state right now,” Middleton said Monday evening. “We know wind energy played a role in this, clearly. Wind energy capacity is normally over 20 percent of the state’s capacity. It’s down to 2.5 percent of its normal capacity. We’re going to have a lot of issues that we’re going to have to fix.”
Hirs had one word for claims that frozen wind turbines and solar panels are to blame for the issue: “Bullshit.”
Hirs asked to be quoted on that, specifically.
Essentially, so little of the state’s power is based on solar and wind turbines that the loss of them alone cannot explain what happened, Hirs said.
“The resiliency of the grid relies on legacy generators,” Hirs said, referring mainly to coal- and natural-gas fired plants.
Peak demand on the state’s power grid hovers around 70 gigawatts or 74 gigawatts during August and September but averages about 45 gigawatts over the year, Hirs said. Ordinarily, marginal plants operating during the summer will shut down.
But it’s not as if this cold snap is unprecedented, Hirs said. Some parts of Texas experienced a similar collapse of the state’s power grid in 2011, including the medical center in Dallas.
“How many people will get injured and die because of this?” Hirs asked. “We still don’t know. But this is a deadly serious problem.”
And one that Texas officials, until now, have been unwilling to consider seriously, Hirs said.