What did the Texas blackouts reveal about America’s broken power grid?
Power went out in Texas during the winter storm in mid-February, resulting in two major phenomena. First, the energy demand shot up as Texans used electric heaters to stop from freezing. Second, energy generators like natural gas, and wind went offline as they froze.
In response, Texas energy officials shed power by initiating “rolling blackouts”, the same tactic employed in California last summer during an extreme heatwave. These rolling outages eventually became a prolonged blackout, millions lost electricity, and frozen pipes shut off water supply. Regulators of the state’s electric grid, at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), were complacent, claiming to have prevented an indefinite blackout.
What is to blame for one of the largest shortfalls in energy supply in modern US history?
The electricity Grid: a complex patchwork of power generation machinery, and millions of miles of distribution lines deliver $400 billion of electricity a year. This network is split between 3 independent interconnections: Western, Eastern, and Texas. Generally these networks exchange electricity in times of crisis. But Texas’s grid, kept independent to avoid federal regulation, couldn’t source backup power from other regions during the storm.
Distribution is the key failure point in terms of reliability, accounting for 92% of all electric service interruptions, a result that will only continue to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.
The majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components over a century old — far past their 50-year life expectancy — and others, including 70% lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans. Beyond causing untold customer pain, the outages are getting expensive, costing the US an average of $18- $33 billion per year. For data centers, the cost of outages equates to $8,851 per minute.
Compounding this is the integration of renewables, which accounted for the largest portion of new generating capacity for the first time in 2020. With the generation of energy at specific times, and worsening electric load curve (from electric vehicles), energy storage seems like an obvious choice, but power companies are still betting on big, centralized storage infrastructure where transmission systems carry electricity over long distances to end-customers.
With increased reliance on electric power, along with the rise of electric vehicles, and the threats posed by extreme weather events brought on by climate change, we have a “Grid-a-geddon” in the making.
We must decide what we want the grid of the future to look like. Will we remain with an aging centralized network, or will we build a more decentralized system that is more resilient?
This is the first post in a recurring series of ElectricFish insights around the transition to a modern electricity infrastructure. Stay tuned for our upcoming posts!