By some accounts, the electric power grid serving most of Texas was minutes from the abyss early Monday morning as an Arctic cold front swept across the state, plunging temperatures, causing generation plants to “trip off” — throttling supply as demand spiked.
The impending collapse would have been utter, sweeping and destructive to generation and distribution equipment and electrical devices consumers operate, said Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages a grid serving about 90 percent of the state’s power market, 24 million customers.
Restoring power after a total collapse would have taken months of work and a fortune, Magness told reporters Wednesday.
To prevent that, grid operators ordered distribution companies such as CenterPoint Energy and Texas-New Mexico Power Co., which serve Galveston County, to cut demand load among their customers by thousands of megawatts more or less immediately.
We all know what happened next; we’re still living it.
Although we can justifiably call this lingering widespread failure a catastrophe, we’re obliged to at least consider whether we got lucky and averted something worse.
That’s ERCOT’s version of events, anyway, which gets to one of the first questions all Texans will have to answer for themselves — who to believe.
Magness and ERCOT have been on the receiving end of much criticism since the heat went off and the big freeze set in.
Maybe that’s justified and maybe it’s just politically convenient to other state leaders who actually are more at fault. For our money, Magness and ERCOT technicians have been among the very few objective voices to be heard at the state level. Most of the rest so far has been self-interested or ideological sputter and spew.
As we noted before, Gov. Greg Abbott made a show of calling for Magness’ resignation, which at this point looks more like scapegoating than a reasonable, justifiable government response.
Abbott and many other state leaders stooped to using this deadly weather event, and the grid failure that happened on their watch, to attack renewable energy and to shill for fossil fuels; not that most needed a new reason for either.
That whole argument is nonsense. The failure had nothing to with any inherent weaknesses in wind power, to cite the example Abbott falsely tried to peddle. At the moment Abbott was talking, wind turbines were reliably generating power in places far colder for longer than it got in Texas this week; in China and Antarctica, for example.
The failure had nothing to with weaknesses inherent to gas, coal or nuclear plants either, even though they accounted for 60 percent of the power that dropped out of the grid when the cold front blew through.
The weaknesses are deeper, wider and more systemic than that.
Here’s a basic one — although ERCOT can order transmission companies to decrease demand, it can’t force generation companies to increase supply. Generators can check into and out of the grid as they please. Many Texas gas plants were pleased to check out of the grid Monday morning, just when people needed them most.
Maybe that was unavoidable, driven by things such as gas pipelines going empty because wellheads froze, and maybe it was the result of economic decisions.
Asked this week whether generating companies withheld power while the grid was teetering at the edge of an abyss, Magness said he could not speculate about why plants had “tripped off.”
The fact he would have to speculate is amazing — the state’s head grid manager can’t compel a power generator to say why it has stopped feeding the system.
Magness said ERCOT had “no reason to believe” and “no evidence that” generators withheld power from the grid, which, of course, is a less than ringing defense.
The bottom-line truth is that ERCOT has the responsibility to manage the grid, without any of the essential authority to do so.
Interestingly, power began flowing back into the grid very soon after the Public Utility Commission of Texas on Tuesday ordered ERCOT to raise the wholesale price of electricity to a $9,000 a megawatt “scarcity” cap.
Maybe that was just the result of warming weather and declining demand, but some of the statements about that sharp price increase indicate otherwise.
Magness told a Daily News reporter Friday the PUC’s order was to “incentivize” generators to feed the grid. How economic incentive might thaw a wellhead was unclear.
Meanwhile, way back on Tuesday, Andrew Barlow, a spokesman for the PUC, told the Houston Chronicle relatively low electric prices might have meant that available power was not making it to the grid, despite the shortages.
“When the ERCOT dispatch system sees prices that are not at the $9,000 scarcity cap, it is programmed to ‘think’ that there isn’t scarcity in the market and that some power should be held in reserve instead of releasing it to power the grid,” he said. “The commissioners’ order fixed that.”
That, again, was Tuesday when a few people around here were dying, and many thousands were suffering, yet power generators might have been confused about the need for more power?
If lawmakers are interested in getting to the bottom of this fiasco and are looking for inherency, here’s some: Private power generation companies operating in an unregulated market are under no obligation to feed the grid. That truth is inherent to an unregulated market.
• Michael A. Smith