Warm Southern Breeze

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Details On Texas’ Electrical Power Grid Production Problems

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Texas Interconnection, which covers 213 of Texas’ 254 counties, is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Counties NOT included: Bailey, Bowie, Camp, Cass, Cochran, Dallam, El Paso, Gaines, Gregg, Hansford, Hardin, Harrison, Hartley, Hemphill, Hockley, Hudspeth, Hutchinson, Jasper, Jefferson, Lamb, Liberty, Lipscomb, Lubbock, Marion, Moore, Morris, Newton, Ochiltree, Orange, Panola, Polk, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Shelby, Sherman, Terry, Trinity, Tyler, Upshur and Yoakum. (Total = 41)

By now, you’ve likely read or heard numerous stories of Texans’ suffering because of electrical power outages, that are now becoming rolling blackouts.

And, perhaps as well you’ve read that deregulation has been a significantly influential part of the problem.

And then, you may have also read or heard that failure to properly insulate and protect against wintry weather conditions has been the preliminary finding of a root cause analysis.

But you may also wonder why other states or nations which regularly experience much colder temperature extremes don’t have the same kinds of problems that Texas has.

Scandinavian countries, Minnesotans, Michiganders and Mainers all regularly have much cooler temperatures and wind power, but their windmills and electrical power grids don’t stop operating like the ones in Texas did. And Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and other European nations also regularly have cold weather that doesn’t shut down their power grid. So, what gives?

The weather-related failures of Texas’ natural gas (NatGas) infrastructure that has resulted in this present and most unfortunate crisis, are because NatGas pipelines froze in the very time of year and season in which they are most heavily relied upon.

Again, states and nations with much colder climes don’t seem to have the kinds of problems that Texas is experiencing. And there remains at least 42 signatory nations with permanent, year-round research stations in the Antarctic, which also have electricity. So again, why exactly did natural gas pipelines freeze in Texas? Water is the primary thing that freezes, right?

With single-digit temperatures, Texas’ Natural Gas pipelines froze up because there was moisture in the gas. Like moisture on the exterior of an iced beverage glass, cold temperatures cause moisture to condensate, and once liquefied, then exposed to freezing temperatures, gas pipelines were literally blocked with ice, and in some cases, the compressors lost power. It’s common for Natural Gas to be stored underground, which is also where it originates. So in its “raw” state, or untreated condition, it is not uncommon for water – either as liquid, or vapor – to be present in the unrefined gas, which in turn, must be “dried out,” or dehumidified to certain levels in order to be salable and usable.

In response, pumps which were used to deliver Natural Gas then slowed down. The Diesel engines which were used to power the pumps refused to start. And from there, it was a cascade of failures – a “domino effect” – one power plant after another went offline. Even 1 of Texas’ 2 nuclear reactors went dark, hampered by inoperable equipment. And to be certain, the nuclear power plant wasn’t “crippled” in the sense that it was incapable of operations, but a decision – in the interest of safety – was made to shut down the plant because a critical component – a sensor – was not working because of the cold temperatures. Further complicating matters, the NatGas that was available was prioritized for heating residences and businesses, rather than for generating electricity.

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“The measurement of moisture in natural gas is an important parameter for the processing, storage and transportation of natural gas globally. Natural gas is dehydrated prior to introduction into the pipeline and distribution network. However, attempts to reduce dehydration result in a reduction in “gas quality” and an increase in maintenance costs and transportation as well as potential safety issues.. Consequently, to strike the right balance, it is important that the water component of natural gas is measured precisely and reliably. Moreover, in custody transfer of natural gas between existing and future owners maximum allowable levels are set by tariff, normally expressed in terms of absolute humidity (mg/m3 or lbs/mmscfh) or dew point temperature.

“Prior to transportation, water is separated from raw natural gas. However some water still remains present in the gaseous state as water vapor. If the gas cools or comes in contact with any surface that is colder that the prevailing dew point temperature of the gas, water will condense in the form of liquid or ice. Under pressure, water also has the unique property of being able to form a lattice structure around hydrocarbons such as methane to form solid hydrates. Ice or solid hydrates can cause blockage in pipelines. In addition, water combines with gases such as Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) to form corrosive acids. Water in natural gas also increases the cost of transportation in pipelines by adding mass and as water vapor has no calorific or heating value it also adds to the expense of compression and transportation. When natural gas is sold, there are contractual requirements to limit the concentration of water vapor. In the United States the limit or tariff is expressed in absolute humidity in units of pounds per million standard cubic feet (lbs/mmscf). The maximum absolute humidity for interstate transfer is set at 7lbs/mmscf. In Europe, bodies such as EASEE-gas make recommendations on the maximum permissible amount of water vapor in the gas. EASEE-gas has approved a limit of -8°C Dew Point, referenced to a gas pressure of 70 Bar(a). This recommended limit is generally being adhered to in the gas industry across Europe.”

–– “Moisture Measurement Technologies for Natural Gas,” By Gerard McKeogh, Regional Product Manager, GE Measurement & Control

ASTM D4888 – 20; Standard Test Method for Water Vapor in Natural Gas Using Length-of-Stain Detector Tubes

Water content of high pressure natural gas: Data, prediction and experience from field,” by Kjersti Omdahl Christensen, Torbjørn Vegard Løkken, Even Solbraa, Cecilie Fjeld Nygaard, Anita Bersås;

Equinor, a Stavanger, Norway-based international energy company, engaged in exploration, development and production of oil and gas, including wind and solar power. They sell crude oil and are a major supplier of natural gas, with activities in processing, refining, and trading.

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Of course, politicians (Republicans have been the primary ones crying and whining) have made all sorts of utterly ridiculous and false accusations about renewable energy use in the state, particularly and especially about wind power, which supplies only a very small portion of Texas’ total electricity needs, as seen by the graph from the United States Energy Information Administration.

The graph below is from the website of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts – Glenn Hegar, about Texas’ Electricity Resources, and Public Utility Commission of Texas via ERCOT which shows that Texas produces more than TWICE as much electricity from Natural Gas – 181,770 GigaWatt hours (GWh) – than it does from Nonhydroelectric Renewables, such as wind – 76,708 GWh, or coal – 77,857 GWh – combined. So the failure, then, lies squarely with problems in the delivery of Natural Gas.

Moreover, ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas have further identified sources of electrical power generation, as seen in the chart entitled “Exhibit 2: Texas Electricity Generation by Fuel, 2019,” which clearly shows that coal produces as much electrical power as wind – 20% each, while nuclear power provides only 10%. With very nearly 50% of all sources, NatGas is by far the single largest source of electricity production in Texas.

Some have said that this Polar Vortex is a “once-in-a-century” type occurrence, but the Polar Vortex of February 2019 was far more severe than this one – and for the greatest part, while it did snow in certain locations in the more northern parts of Texas, such as Austin, or Dallas-Fort Worth, it didn’t adversely affect the state the way it did much of the rest of the United States, simply because of Texas’ Southern vicinity. And because there is no reliable or accurate scientific model that can or has predicted the occurrence of a Polar Vortex, scientists remain baffled.

However, it was but a mere 11 years ago that Texas’ power grid experienced practically the exact same problem as it’s now experiencing, which also resulted in rolling blackouts. And Polar Vortex was not culprit. The National Weather Service (NWS) has a page for North and Central Texas Snowfall Events for Winter 2009-2010 which details the climatic conditions Texans experienced, and noted that

“Winter 2009-2010 will be remembered by many as one of the snowiest winters in North Texas in quite some time. The official site for the Metroplex, D/FW Airport, recorded 17.1 inches of snowfall making it the 2nd snowiest season on record. Some locations had even more snow, with a few spots having 25 inches or more. Central Texas had considerably less snow. Also of interest was how there was very little freezing rain during the season. Typically North and Central Texas will have one or two ice events during the winter months, but not this year.”

The NWS states that the El Niño was responsible for the rare events, which as they wrote, “is the main factor in this winters weather pattern.”

D/FW Snowiest Seasons
Rank–Depth–Year
1 –– 17.6 –– 1977-78
2 –– 17.1 –– 2009-10*
3 –– 15.3 –– 1963-64
4 –– 13.5 –– 1923-24
5 –– 10.4 –– 1976-77
6 –– 9.5 –– 1909-10
7 –– 9.2 –– 1916-17
8 –– 8.8 –– 1947-48
9 –– 8.1 –– 1937-38
10 –– 7.3 –– 1965-66
10 –– 7.3 –– 1941-42

Texans throughout the state are not unfamiliar with climatological extremes, for the Brownsville/Rio Grande Valley forecast office of the NWS similarly published on October 22, 2020 an “Update: Rio Grande Valley/Deep South Texas Winter Weather Outlook 2010/11: Drought Underway, no relief in sight from worsening wild fire danger,” which in part stated that:

“…dry and mild autumn and early winter, courtesy of a moderate to strong La Niña, coupled with a persistent negative phase of the atmospheric teleconnection known as the Arctic Oscillation, has eliminated all significant rainfall to much of South Texas, and nearly all of Deep South Texas. In late December 2009, the Arctic Oscillation was also strongly negative; however, when coupled with the El Niño warming of the eastern equatorial tropical Pacific Ocean, periodic rains fell in Deep South Texas. The absence of the subtropical jet explains the lack of significant rainfall; the negative phased Arctic Oscillation is a possible contributor to the frequency of cold fronts, which have brought very low humidity and a few mornings of subfreezing temperatures thus far in late 2010.”

As well, the Fort Worth/Dallas, TX Weather Forecast Office has a page that enumerates

Significant North Texas Snow and Ice Events” going back to December 25, 1841 which states that, “In the earliest record of a white Christmas in North Texas, soldiers were tracking a bear in 6 inches of snow in what is now Dallas.” The most recent such event is dated February 3-4, 2011, and states that, “Snow began in Central Texas during the evening hours of February 3. The snow spread north overnight, impacting nearly all of North Texas. Snow continued in Northeast Texas into the evening hours of February 4. Dallas Love Field measured 5.1 inches for the event. Totals of 6 inches or more could be found in Collin County, and from Corsicana to Terrell and Canton. The heaviest amounts were 7 to 8 inches, from Emory and Sulphur Springs to Mineola and Mount Pleasant.”

In fact, the winter of 2009/2010 was a collection of at least 4 storms which occurred throughout the United States that season, making it one of the most extreme winter weather events in recorded history, which was so severe that the NWS included it in their NESIS (Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale) intensity rating system. The 1st and 3rd of those storms, which were colloquially termed Nor’Easters, and occurred December 2009 and February 9-10, 2010, while the 2nd and 4th occurred February 2-6, 2010, and originated in the Gulf of Mexico. The storms’ paths covered the entire contiguous 48 states, ranging from the Baja California Sur (part of Mexico) to Maine and dumped record-setting amounts of snow, up to 4 feet in places. Texas was not excluded from the effects, and endured record rainfall amounts.

Perhaps this “Top Ten” chart of weather events by the NWS may help refresh your memory of those events that year.

The following is a list for the top ten U.S. weather/climate events which occurred during 2010.

These events were selected by a panel of weather/climate experts from around the country.

For additional information on these events, please see our
Top Ten U.S. Events webpage.

Rank Event
1 Consecutive Winter Blizzards/ Extreme Snow Season
2 Nashville and Central TN flooding
3-tie Hot Summer in the East
3-tie Midwest Super Storm
5 Hawaiian Drought
6 No hurricanes made U.S. landfall despite active Atlantic
7 Near Eradication of CONUS Drought
8 Vivian, SD Hailstone
9 New England Flooding
10 Minnesota as tornado leader

The entire record of climatic events, including details by the month of occurrences – such as the “National Climate Report – December 2010” – is found on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website as the “National Climate Report – Annual 2010.”

As regarding the events in Texas, and their corresponding failures however, around 1999, Texas state politicians decided to deregulate the electrical energy production market in the state, to “introduce retail competition in much of ERCOT’s service area,” and to operate their own electrical power grid, independent of, and apart from industry-mandated requirements and Federal standards, in effect meaning that Texas was officially isolating themselves from the rest of the nation’s electrical power producers, and the Federal standards to which others adhered.

The business model, as explained by the Texas State Comptroller, is that “Power Generators produce electricity from fuel and sell it on the wholesale market, where it’s purchased by private companies called Investor-Owned Utilities or Retail Electricity Providers (REPs). Texas has about 300 REPs.” Those who live in “areas outside the ERCOT grid or in areas served by Municipally Owned Utilities (such as Austin Energy), Electricity Co-Ops and River Authorities, rely on a single service provider.”

The business model, however, wasn’t the solitary consideration, and as numerous leading industry experts, and analysts have stated, the state of Texas was being “penny wise, and pound foolish” looking only for a “quick buck” without any regard for contingencies for, or preparations against, any future emergent climatic conditions. That included, most notably, a practically wholesale absence of considerations for cold temperatures, or physical insulation against the same in almost any aspect of NatGas production, or delivery.

That utter failure to even consider the possibility – exemplified as a wholesale lack of planning for climatological extremes, cold –and– hot – of any effects upon any aspect of the energy grid is not one single problem. It is a reckless, universal, categorical, utterly comprehensive failure by the entire energy industry in Texas.

Compounding the problem is the matter of the fact that it demonstrates a careless level of relationship for the very ones who give it life by their business, and in turn, entrust their lives to it – customers – which is an abuse of the most heinous kind, for it mischaracterizes as “normal” or to-be-expected, not just sloppy behavior, but worse. To describe such an abysmal failure – not only in this instance, but in others which were direct harbingers of events to come – is not merely “short-sighted,” it is deliberate, even wanton. And the fundamental root cause analysis of it, reveals the problem to be greed.

It would not be too far-fetched to imagine (unless the Texas State Legislature asserted otherwise, and chose not to protect the people, but industry instead), that in the future, if such deliberate failures to act to prevent catastrophic loss in Texas – primarily as loss of human life, but property loss, as well – would be subject to litigation by others against the offenders – that being the entire spectrum of participants, ranging from  Power Generators, Investor-Owned Utilities aka Retail Electricity Providers, and ERCOT as the esrtwhile ne’er do well pseudo-manager, and perhaps even the Public Utility Commission of Texas for allowing it all to happen under their watchful eyes.

Ultimately, of course, the responsibility lies with Texas politicians who have horrifically and bitterly failed their constituents… again, and in magnificently resplendent fashion – making this catastrophic fiasco their magnum opus of failure.

And there is precedent for the same. Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE), the primary electrical utility and NatGas service provider for California, was sued recently, and consequently filed bankruptcy because of the sheer volume of lawsuits filed citing PGE’s deliberate failures to act in a preventative manner to secure their power lines to prevent fire, which in turn caused massive wildfires in the state. To assert that affirmative corporate responsibility is somehow tortuous or onerous to justice or jurisprudence is beyond the scope of the pale. And ERCOT is a well-known name in Texas.

There are three primary electrical power grids in the Lower 48 states:
1.) The Eastern Interconnection;
2.) The Western Interconnection, and;
3.) The Texas Interconnection.

MISO 2015 service area map

Because electricity cannot be stored at any level of significance, it has to be – and is – directed toward areas where it is needed simply by “flipping a switch,” per se. But to be able to receive electricity from, or provide electricity to other producers, there must be a set of uniform technical and operating standards to which all involved parties must abide. That was perfectly illustrated by what MISO did during the February 2019 Polar Vortex. MISO, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, provides electrical power for parts of Canada, Minnesota, and several other Northern states, down into Louisiana, including most of Mississippi, Arkansas, and even a portion of Eastern Texas.

MISO, which is a “a not-for-profit member-based organization that ensures reliable, least-cost delivery of electricity across all or parts of 15 U.S. states and one Canadian province,” searched across their entire operations area of the North American Electrical Power Grid for additional electricity to meet customers’ needs, because more electrical power generating plants had suffered outages than anticipated during the Polar Vortex weather event. MISO requested emergency assistance, and declared a “Maximum Generation Event” which in turn, brought electricity to the area from states as far away as Louisiana in order to meet the increased demand.

Texas electrical energy deregulation map

But, because the electrical power grid that is the isolated Texas Interconnection (via ERCOT) is independent of the other 2 interconnections – Eastern, and Western – they neither send, nor receive electrical power from outside of the ERCOT management area. You’ll notice that the area in which MISO operates in Eastern Texas is NOT a part of the state’s deregulated area, and is depicted by the white areas on the state’s county-level energy deregulation map.

ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, manages the Texas Interconnection.

The Houston Chronicle wrote on February 17th that ERCOT authorities and other electric utility providers in Texas failed to learn their lessons from the crises in either 2011, or 1989.

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl Sunday 2011 electrical failure, ERCOT, the state’s power grid manager, still ignored the warnings issued by a Federal report that found systemic inadequacies throughout the state’s power grid, recommended installing insulation, and making changes to the companies’ reserve generating capacity. And, in response to ERCOT’s failures, the Texas Legislature passed a law mandating that power companies file regular reports with the Public Utility Commission of Texas detailing their weatherization compliance efforts. But State Comptroller Glenn Hegar, author of that bill, wondered if the law had done enough, and said in response to the most recent crisis that, “I am extremely frustrated that 10 years later our electric grid remains so ill-equipped for these weather events.”

The Public Utility Commission of Texas oversees the electrical power generation industry, including ERCOT, and Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s Senior Director of System Operations asserted that the state’s power generators adhered to best practices for winterization, but in a conference call Monday, 15 February 2021, admitted failure by claiming that the existing parameters were inadequate to protect against conditions that went “well beyond the design parameters of an extreme Texas winter.”

Wild fluctuations in the price per MegaWatt hour of electricity has plagued Texas electrical service providers, and in the summer months when electricity is typically at peak demand for the cooling power of air conditioning, it’s not uncommon for prices to have risen to the $9000 per MWhr cap fixed by the legislature, though they’re typically in the $25 per MWhr range year-round.

Dr. Daniel Cohan, PhD, an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University said, “Texas has chosen to operate its power grid as an island. We need to better realize how vulnerable our energy systems are — both electricity and the vulnerability of electricity and natural gas systems together. This is going to take some regrouping and there’s not going to be a single step. We’re going to need a portfolio of steps. To me, our system of electricity is like selling lottery tickets. Ninety-five percent of the year they’re selling power for peanuts. They’re counting on selling power at times like these when power prices spike 300 times their normal rate.”

Other industry experts and analysts agree – there is little incentive for electrical power generators in Texas to maintain systems that are better managed in order to protect the consumer, the business itself, or the industry as a whole. Matthew Breidert, Senior Portfolio Manager of Infrastructure & Energy Transition with Ecofin Advisors Limited acknowledged ERCOT’s and Texas’ “Wild West” operation mentality, and noted that “it might have a more stable resource portfolio to handle this event” if the Texas Interconnection were to join with either of the other 2 larger Interconnections, rather than go it alone, and do their own thing.

Some Texas power generating companies have argued that changing the type of market in which Texas electrical power companies operate would be a better motivator for public protection than the existing operating philosophy, which only incentivizes prices and profits. Paying power generating companies to maintain extra generating capacity to be available during peak demand would be one such solution.

However, ERCOT does have a reserve margin – an amount of excess electrical supply needed to meet peak power demand – but because Texas’ electric market is unregulated, companies don’t want to incur any additional cost associated with decreasing, or minimizing their risk of failure. Yet, increasing the amount of their reserve margins would mean that other such crises of this magnitude could very possibly be avoided in the future. It would be difficult to mandate that companies’ increase their reserve margin, but financial incentives could increase adoption of such standards.

Rebecca Babin, Senior Equity Trader at CIBC Private Wealth Management said of the Power Generators that, “On these tail events, they’re really ill equipped. They’re not incentivized to invest in the infrastructure to make those improvements.”

ERCOT, however, only sets best practices for power generators, and has no authority to require members to better protect their equipment, or the infrastructure at large, from cold weather extremes, nor to protect customers from losses resulting from the power companies’ failures.

Dr. Michael Webber said that the problems ERCOT and Texas electrical power suppliers are experiencing is not limited to just one type, or source, and noted that “There’s weaknesses in the system we haven’t dealt with. We need better insulation and weatherization at facilities and in homes. All the fuels and technologies have their weak point, and they’re all failing for different reasons right now. And it’s happening as demand is setting record highs.”

Dr. Michael E. Webber, PhD, is the Deputy Director of the Energy Institute, Josey Centennial Fellow in Energy Resources, Co-Director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the Austin Technology Incubator, and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, and the leader for the Webber Energy Group there, as well. He is also the Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy & infrastructure services company.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has established a joint task force with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to examine the electrical power outages which have occurred most recently throughout the Midwest, South, and in Texas.

What is the NERC, and what do they do?

“The North American Electric Reliability Corporation is a not-for-profit international regulatory authority whose mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid. NERC develops and enforces Reliability Standards; annually assesses seasonal and long‐term reliability; monitors the bulk power system through system awareness; and educates, trains, and certifies industry personnel. NERC’s area of responsibility spans the continental United States, Canada, and the northern portion of Baja California, Mexico. NERC is the Electric Reliability Organization (ERO) for North America, subject to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and governmental authorities in Canada. NERC’s jurisdiction includes users, owners, and operators of the bulk power system, which serves nearly 400 million people.”

NERC’s stated mission and “vision for the Electric Reliability Organization Enterprise, which is comprised of NERC and the six Regional Entities, is a highly reliable and secure North American bulk power system. Our mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid.”​

It remains to be seen whether Texas has one scintilla of care, or not.

One Response to “Details On Texas’ Electrical Power Grid Production Problems”

  1. […] a matter of a few days ago, on Thursday, February 18, 2021, in an entry entitled “Details On Texas’ Electrical Power Grid Production Problems,” I wrote in part […]

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