Rolling Blackouts, who's to blame?

A massive winter storm rolled through Texas last night causing 7,000 megawatts worth of power plants to shut down and in the wee hours of the morning, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the grid operator, declared an energy emergency.

ERCOT called on state energy suppliers to cut about 4,000 megawatts worth of power demand equal to about 2.9 million homes, leaving homes dark and without heat for up to an hour (some folks for even longer), causing some schools and businesses to shut and creating traffic snarls as traffic lights stopped working during rush hour.

The grid operator reduced that call to about 3,000 MW by mid-morning as some generation returned to service, but they expect the rolling outages to continue until a sufficient amount of generation is back online.

Critical infrastructures have separate power supply agreements with utilities and are less susceptible to interruptions than residential or commercial customers.  Obviously, that means hospitals, firehouses, police and other emergency services, but there are also large industrial facilities that have these types of agreements. On the Gulf Coast, that translates to refineries, in Austin, it was the chip fabs.

Throughout the state, power suppliers started “controlled rolling outages” sometime between 5 and 6:00 am affecting hundreds of thousands of customers on a rotating basis.  These controlled rolling outages are planned emergency measures designed to avoid potentially longer, and more widespread power outages.

Weather-related unit outages caused the “hourly wholesale power price” in Texas to soar to $3,000 per megawatt-hour, up from about $50 where they usually trade. That’s comparable to about $3 per kilowatt-hour for residential users, though most Texas consumers have long-term power deals with suppliers that protect them from short-term price spikes.  Just before noon, the hourly wholesale power price was down to $179 per megawatt-hour, which means that things are stabilizing for right now.

ERCOT has forecast that peak demand would top 55,000 megawatts on Wednesday and 57,000 MW on Thursday before dropping to about 47,000 MW on Friday, still well below the grid’s 2010 summer peak of 65,715 megawatts.  We probably won’t know until tomorrow at the earliest which plants tripped and what other factors may have contributed to this power emergency (see update further down), but be sure, an investigation will be demanded.

In other parts of the country, hundreds of thousands were without power due to ice and snow taking down power lines.  Crews worked through the night and had reduced that number by early morning.  And in Australia, the most powerful cyclone to hit in nearly 100 years has made landfall with winds at the center of the storm gusting up to 186 mph.  So while inconvenient, I guess we could count ourselves fortunate.

We are hearing anecdotally that many folks around Austin are experiencing long and repeated outages, but here at Public Citizen’s office we’ve not experienced any outage since before dawn this morning.  Possibly because we are just blocks from the Capitol and PUC (which has probably also been a hub of activity since the wee hours of the morning).  We hope everyone reading this is somewhere warm with electricity.

UPDATE:

Just heard the rolling blackouts are now over.  However, ERCOT warns they might be required again before the current freeze lifts, as late as sometime Friday, as Texas is still down 5,000-plus megawatts of capacity because of extreme weather.  We surely don’t want another day like today that so we recommend everyone shut things down at home tonight and at your office before you leave.

ANOTHER UPDATE:

According to the Austin American Statesman:

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said late this morning that a broken pipe and a frozen pipe at two Central Texas electric generating plants helped trigger a statewide power emergency that forced rolling blackouts in Austin and across Texas.

Dewhurst said problems at the Luminant-owned Oak Grove plant east of Temple and the Sandow plant near Rockdale apparently were caused by a winter storm that has dropped temperatures to below freezing across the state, and stalled activity in some parts of North Texas with blizzard-like conditions.

At the same time as the two plants were down early today, Dewhurst said other power plants were off-line from Texas’ utility grid, and pressure drops in natural gas supply lines caused by the freezing temperatures were causing problems at other plants.

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