Energy

As goes Texas blackout, so almost went New England

Screenshot of Texas power outage, 2-16.

By Guy Page

Three winters ago, New England narrowly avoided a regional power blackout such as struck Texas this week. What happened here three years ago and what is happening in Texas is strikingly similar.

As of this morning 3.3 million Lone Star State customers remain without power. People, chimpanzees and lemurs have died as a result of the deep freeze. Politicians, grid operators and utilities are pointing fingers at each other in an effort to escape blame from an angry public demanding to know how this happened and who to blame.

Events in New England three years ago (late December, first week of January) and this week in Texas unfolded in three simple steps:

  1. Unexpectedly cold weather struck the region. Homeowners turned up their thermostats. The available supply of natural gas for other uses dwindled. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, except…..
  1. Output dropped unexpectedly from another, large source of electricity. In Texas, wind power output was cut in half, victims of frozen iced-up wind turbines. Three years ago, storm damage knocked out a key transmission line from Pilgrim nuclear power station in Massachusetts. (Wind, solar, and hydro were and still are relatively small contributors, especially in deep winter.)
  1. Natural gas alone couldn’t make up the difference. Asked to 1) provide more heat than expected and 2) deliver far more electricity than expected, natural gas delivery systems and power plants simply couldn’t get enough fuel to do both.

So, why didn’t New England suffer blackouts like Texas? The first answer is a reminder: we almost did. According to ISO-New England, the region’s electricity grid operators, it was a near thing. It didn’t happen because 1) temperatures rose sufficiently just before available fuel ran out and 2) New England had enough backup, backup power generation in the form of oil and coal-fired generating plants. With an assist from the weather and enough backup, backup power, New England squeaked through without the population at large knowing just how close they had come to freezing in the dark. 

Some would say the lesson was not lost on New England’s grid operators. Vermont utilities, example, can now “manage” power load by controlling the use of residential heat pumps and home batteries. Utilities can remotely manage power consumption when it threatens to overwhelm supply, as this recent letter from Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility, shows:

“On February 12, Green Mountain Power will manage one or more of your enrolled devices beginning at 5:00 pm to help lower energy use during peak demand. The event will last 3 hours. You are always in control and can opt out of this event by manually adjusting your device during the event window.”

That’s how utilities manage demand. They ask for voluntary reductions, and if necessary they remotely access modern conveniences like heat pumps and home batteries. 

In a crisis, utilities must also boost supply. And that’s where New England energy policy starts to get dicy. The Pilgrim plant and some other “baseload” generators are permanently closed now, victims of grid energy purchasing policies and the relentless push by the renewable power industry to (for example) build large, offshore wind farms. Supporters of offshore wind are longtime critics of nuclear power and are among the fiercest opponents of developing more hydropower transmission capacity from Canada.

It may seem counterproductive to close existing power generators when the region is also focused on “electrification” – that is, replacing gasoline powered transportation with electric vehicles, and replacing oil furnaces with electric heat pumps. Nevertheless, both of those trends are being pursued simultaneously. Will the New England grid have the resources to stand another polar vortex as struck the area three years ago, and is now inflicting misery on Texas? That’s the plan. Let’s hope it works.

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    • You can hope to be prepared. A generator? What fuels that for more than several hours, without electricity,
      to refill gasoline, propane tanks. What you’ve got and you are done, done!

      Buy a motor home, and have generator, 30 to 100 gals gasoline, 20 to 50 gallons water, propane and full independent comfortable hot water living conditions. Great virus free vacations too.
      Do you have clean milk jugs full of emergency water??

  1. The situation in Texas appears dire for many people. Media reports showing metro cities such Austin & Houston with buildings lit up (even an empty parking garage?!) while across a highway, homes are in darkness. Please pray for those who are suffering there now…pray those responsible for this disaster will meet the appropriate consequences of their actions and inactions.

    • the people responsible are the liberals/progressives that think we can power the USA with wind and solar. Utilities need to invest more in generation, but the regulators are stopping them.

      • Funny how the wind turbines in Vermont, New York ( select those because most of us know or see them, but they are also found all across the upper tier of the U.S.) work just fine in ice storms or heavy winds. About 90%. of Texas doesn’t belong to the national grid because they do not want to deal with Federal regulations, El Paso and surrounding areas have electricity because they belong to the national grid. Let’s get the facts right please, it helps with civil discourse.

    • Unfortunately, the people most responsible will never pay a price for their actions- or lack of. Politicians most always seem to avoid consequence- even if defeated in their next election. Lobbyists, likewise duck the backlash.
      The consequence to Texas is serious and dire, as it will also be to New England and particularly Vermont when the lights go out.
      And the lights will go out.
      Solar, Wind and back-up battery systems are in their infancy, in terms of development and capability. We cannot allow misinformed politicians to tilt at the “green” windmills, of Wind and Solar at the expense of human life. Energy policy has been discussed in the Vermont legislature for many decades now, always coming up short for the public- but not for the legislature nor the lobbyist.
      The sun will never shine 24/7, the wind will never give the reliability that we have come to demand from the power grid. In the pursuit of “green energy” we have ignored reliable energy. Gas and oil powered generation, nuclear are all now evil, we’re told.
      I’m betting John Kerry, AlGore and the other climate change prophets all have some pretty nice stand-by generators at their homes. And their second homes.
      We cannot allow our “elected representatives” to put Vermont into the position Texas is in today.

  2. Natural gas pipelines froze in Texas and we are on the national grid while Texas, or most of it but the one area that is receiving electricity, is on their own.

  3. My understanding is Texas did not upgrade or harden their grid as some didn’t think it was necessary. It would never be so cold in Texas the grid would fail. We are in solar minimum, so after 100-150 years – boom – it happens. Texas has seen many hurricanes and should be prepared for grid down disasters – something is not right in Texas for them to be caught so flat footed and some saying the electrical costs went up over 1000% or more? When it comes to disasters, since Katrina, anyone believing the government will help or is helping with addressing climate change….will likely die in a disaster or whatever else our government has planned for us….plagues, pains, electro automobiles…..

  4. There’s no question but that the Texas circumstance is complex. What’s curious is that this happened a decade ago in Texas and they didn’t upgrade their infrastructure to deal with it. Fool me once… as they say.

    In Vermont, however, where I’ve lived most of my life, this is common sense. I have two generators at my house. I built the house with loads of insulation, the roof can handle a 100+ pound per square foot snow load, and I have woodstove back up for heat. It’s not rocket science.

    Texans will figure this out. In the meantime, however, I suggest we ignore the political demagoguery. Politicians always point the finger at others, which is why they should never be fully believed in whatever they say, in whatever State they reside.

  5. Texas was ready to activate fossil fuel electrical plants but federal executive orders were not to exceed environmental Paris accord climate change regulation. The result is people died. And billions of dollars in damage from water pipe breaks in infrastructure. The more progressives insist on “green” power and more electric vehicles more will die. Just imagine if all cars were electric. All batteries would be immediately drained to produce heat because there would be no heat from a combustion engines. No way for people to evacuate temporarily. And this event is just one week in otherwise warm Texas. What happens to winter states when they exceed carbon limits? Someone said sorry no heat today the wind mills are frozen. Who was it that said Sorry no heat today because its snowing and there is no sun for the snow covered solar panels. I thought it was just another one of the thousands of lies told by that certain someone. I don’t care because I’m not a Texan. It could happen in Minnesota but who cares I don’t live in Minnesota. Then it happened in Vermont and I froze to death because there was no one left that owned an axe or had a fire place since they were outlawed by mandate. Mentally ill people keep doing the same thing expecting a different result. It is the definition of insanity.

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