As the Electrical Grid Collapses in Texas, New England Takes Note

As power grid operators restore power to the millions of Texans who have endured freezing temperatures and no heat or running water for days, experts say that it’s unlikely New England’s relatively hardy grid would fail due to cold weather.

With the caveat that much still has to be learned about the root causes of widespread power outages and skyrocketing energy prices across Texas and the Midwest, they also cautioned that electric grids are going to have to prepare for the unexpected as the changing climate makes unlikely weather a reality.

New England knows cold

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, the trade group representing the region’s power producers, said the widespread power outages in Texas are a product of the state’s grid not being prepared for the extreme and prolonged temperatures that the state is experiencing.

New England, where extreme and prolonged cold is a fact of life, has a grid that can manage that weather because it’s been designed to manage it.

Early reports from the Texas grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, point to frozen equipment at natural gas wellheads and power plants that provide a majority of the power in Texas as a primary culprit for the state’s shortfall in power supply.

Natural Gas Infrastructure in New England Courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration

Natural gas isn’t produced in New England, so frozen wellheads here aren’t a concern – though constraints on gas imported through pipelines do cause supply disruptions from time to time, Dolan said. That’s where having backups like reserve fuel oil is important in the winter, he said.

Texas power plants also aren’t prepared for the cold, said Susan Tierney, energy consultant for Analysis Group and a former energy and utilities official in both the U.S. and Massachusetts governments. Used to sun and warmth, a lot of equipment is outside and froze when exposed to the prolonged cold, she said.

In New England, power producers invest in winterization, Dolan said. Some of that has to do with using the right lubricants for power turbines, like using antifreeze in a car.

Interconnections and capacity market

Another key issue that has emerged in early evaluations of the power grid in Texas, is the state’s lack of connection to other grids that could have potentially provided power from as its own generators failed.

“Texas is not interconnected in a robust way to the rest of the United States, so if it’s got problems, it’s on an island having to help itself,” Tierney said.

Marcello Graziano, an associate professor and economic geographer at Southern Connecticut State University agreed that Texas has only a small ability to make up for losses of power by drawing from other grids.

New England is relatively well connected to other grids, in particular New York and Quebec. In 2020, about 20 percent of New England’s power came from other grids, largely from Quebec, Graziano said.

“Texas is not interconnected in a robust way to the rest of the United States, so if it’s got problems, it’s on an island having to help itself,” Tierney said.

“That means you can rely on sources that are located elsewhere, and that is good,” Graziano said. “That means, like a diversified portfolio, if something goes bad in one sector, you can rely on something else.”

While a more integrated grid probably would have helped Texas, Graziano said, there were multiple failures at multiple levels of the system, particularly with power generators, and the issue still needs to be evaluated more closely.

Along with its connections to other grids, Dolan said that ISO-New England’s forward capacity market is another feature designed to avoid crises like the one in Texas. The capacity market provides funding to allow the major capital investments in power plants that would help ensure that they can perform in a harsh winter. The market also ensures there are enough resources available to meet the expected demand for power at peak times in the winter and summer, he said.

“There’s going to be other elements of this that come out that could show further improvements that could be made to the market to prepare for these extreme weather events,” Dolan said. “It’s too early to tie those directly, but I do think it underscores why we have some of the market structures we have, while recognizing some improvements can certainly be made.”

Planning for the unexpected in a changing climate

New England power plants and the region’s power grid are designed for cold weather, Dolan said. It’s a necessity in the frigid northeast winters, but it comes with added costs. 

“Given that this is a 50- to 100-year type of situation, it’s pretty clear that a lot of facilities in Texas were not designed for it, and the market wasn’t paying for it,” Dolan said. 

The prolonged cold across such a large portion of the middle U.S. is the product of a historically unprecedented set of conditions that has people hunkering down and relying on electricity to keep themselves warm, Tierney said. 

“The world is changing, and it’s not like this is a surprise to anyone in this field, but I’ve asked utilities across the country, ‘How are you figuring new weather patterns and conditions into your planning and forecasting?’ and they say they haven’t yet,” Tierney said, adding that she wasn’t referring to New England utilities in particular.

That means demand for power is off the charts, higher than what the grid operator planned for. At the same time that cold is causing demand to spike, it’s taken a large part of the electric supply out of commission, including frozen mechanics at gas-fired plants and frozen wind turbines – two key sources of energy for the state.

Traditionally, electric utilities have used forecasting tools that use historical data to predict future energy demand, Tierney said. As the climate changes, we’re seeing more unusual events and extreme weather that we haven’t seen in the past, she said.

“The world is changing, and it’s not like this is a surprise to anyone in this field, but I’ve asked utilities across the country, ‘How are you figuring new weather patterns and conditions into your planning and forecasting?’ and they say they haven’t yet,” Tierney said, adding that she wasn’t referring to New England utilities in particular.

Tierney said that it will be difficult to integrate climate modeling in the transmission planning process, because, while it gives some expectation of what events could occur, it doesn’t necessarily give the granular details utilities are looking for.

“Humidity and cold creates ice, and that happened in Texas – it’s a huge surprise,” Tierney said. “But it happened two years ago, too. So there have to be different risk assessments with pushing for ‘what if’ kinds of scenarios that are not necessarily based on probabilities, but on expectations that, at some point, there will be a convergence of conditions and a ‘perfect storm.’”

On Wednesday, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes said it was too early to say what the precise causes of the outages are in Texas, but said she was encouraged when federal regulators announced they would be investigating the root causes. Connecticut will be following that investigation closely to ensure New England’s grid operator is appropriately planning for extreme weather, she said. 

“I think that the one thing that is clear, if you look at any meteorologist presentation over the last day or two, is that the jetstream has collapsed,” Dykes said. “This is something that climate scientists have been telling us we have to be prepared for.”

Dolan said it’s clear the climate is changing, and we’re seeing the impacts in Texas and the midwest, as we’ve seen the impacts in New England. The issue is balancing the cost of preparing for risks with the costs of a potential disaster, and “there is never going to be a perfect mousetrap,” Dolan said.

“You can plan for the most extreme event, but that does come at a cost, and the consumer ultimately pays for that,” Dolan said.

What about those frozen wind turbines?

Initial headlines and political reaction focused on wind turbines in Texas that had been frozen and were not producing power. For opponents of a quick shift to renewable energy, it looked like one of their primary arguments had come to life – a grid too reliant on sources of energy that need specific weather conditions to produce power is at risk of major disruptions.

Throughout the week, the Texas grid operator has debunked the notion that frozen wind turbines were the primary cause of the power outages. Instead, ERCOT pointed to issues at thermal plants, including gas, coal and nuclear, which provide about 80 percent of the grid’s winter capacity.

Graziano said that, while there were renewables like wind that failed as they froze up, they are known to be weather-dependent and behaved about as expected. When a power source acts as expected, the grid operator has planned for it, so it’s not necessarily the problem because there will be backup plans in place.

“The real problem is uncertainty, and the failures you did not expect,” Graziano said. 

The unexpected failure came largely from natural gas production, ERCOT has said. For opponents of natural gas, it’s an indictment of a resource that backers say is a reliable source of energy, cleaner than coal, that is perfect to fill the gaps left by weather-dependent renewables.

Tierney said electric grids are more complicated than they’re made out to be in political debates, where the tendency is to simplify the trade-offs between different sources of energy into finger-pointing and claims that renewables or gas can’t be counted on in times of need.

“The real problem is uncertainty, and the failures you did not expect,” Graziano said. 

Different components of the energy system have different functions, costs and benefits, Tierney said. Solar and wind projects are expensive to build compared to gas plants, but then they don’t need gas to run and aren’t subject to the kinds of price swings that Texas and the Midwest are now coping with, and that happen in New England when there are constraints on gas.

But the trade off is that renewables rely on the sun and wind to generate power. Solar can’t provide power at night, for example, unless it’s combined with battery storage, Tierney explained, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value, or can’t be part of a reliable grid.

Dolan agreed that the initial assessment shows that the crisis in Texas was caused by unexpected and extreme weather, not the shortcomings of any one particular source of power.

“This is where some caution is warranted, and we do need to do the full audit of what actually happened to draw those conclusions, but at this early stage, I think this is a weather issue,” Dolan said.

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