A&M expert: Statewide energy generation not well designed for “super low temperatures”

Texas A&M electrical engineering professor says a combination of unusually high demand and unusually low supply forced ERCOT to enact rolling blackouts.
Published: Feb. 16, 2021 at 6:59 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 16, 2021 at 8:49 PM CST
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BRYAN, Texas (KBTX) - “I don’t think it would be fair to put all the blame on ERCOT (The Energy Reliability Council of Texas),” said Texas A&M Electrical & Computer Engineering professor Thomas Overbye.

He says it’s too early to accurately assign blame for the rolling blackouts and power outages that’s left millions of Texans in the dark.

“I would not want to be a person who is assessing blame,” Overbye says, “I think that will all come out soon enough.”

Overbye serves as the director of the Texas A&M Smart Grid Center. The Smart Grid Center is an on-campus organization focused on modernizing how electricity is delivered from suppliers to consumers.

“The electric usage has been very high,” Overbye explains, “and part of the problem is we’ve lost a lot of generation in the state of Texas because of the cold.”

He says usually the highest demand for electricity usage across the state is in the summer. Overbye says the demand for electricity is nearing all-time highs for the winter months.

“I think the maximum we’ve ever used is 74, 75,000 megawatts here in ERCOT,” Overbye says, “On Sunday we got over 69,000 megawatts, which is extremely high for the winter.”

More than 34,000 Bryan-College Station residents are still without power as of 6:00 p.m. on...
More than 34,000 Bryan-College Station residents are still without power as of 6:00 p.m. on Feb. 16.(KBTX)

He explains that most heating in Texas is powered by electricity. According to Marketwatch, about 60% of homes in Texas have electric heat. The increased demand is being compounded by a decrease in production. Marketwatch estimates about 30% of the power-generating capacity for most of Texas is offline amid the extreme weather.

Texas produces more electricity than any other state, generating almost twice as much as Florida, the second-highest electricity-producing state.

Texas is the largest energy-producing and energy-consuming state in the nation.

Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation and produced about 28% of all the U.S. wind-powered electricity in 2019.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

“A lot of the generation in Texas is well-designed for our summer heat,” Overbye explains, “but it’s not as well-designed for the super low temperatures that we’ve experienced over the last few days.”

ERCOT officials have not specified what energy generation sources are being affected nor have they provided a timeline for getting those sources back online. Officials say they are continuing to bring energy generation sources online but have not said what percentage of energy generation is still offline.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) announced today that they will open a joint inquiry into the operations of the bulk-power system during the extreme winter weather conditions currently being experienced by the Midwest and South central states.

But they’re not the only organizations demanding answers. Governor Greg Abbott is calling on the state legislature to investigate ERCOT and find a way to ensure Texans never experience a mass power outage like this again. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan took it a step further. He’s calling for legislative hearings into the widespread electric outages.

Governor Greg Abbott announced a disaster declaration for the state of Texas on Sunday, Feb. 14.
Governor Greg Abbott announced a disaster declaration for the state of Texas on Sunday, Feb. 14.(KEYE)

Overbye says those investigations and hearings may not reveal a failure in operations but instead, a failure to prepare.

“They’re gonna look at what happened and how could it be prevented,” Overbye says, “how much do we want to invest in preparing for these extremely low temperatures?”

He says the findings will likely point to poorly winterized energy generators. Overbye explains that it would take an investment from the owners of the generators to pay for winterization. But Overbye explains those generators rarely need extra protection during the winter months.

According to the Pinpoint Forecast Team, Sunday was the first time in state history that all 254 counties were under a storm warning.

The entire state of Texas was under a Winter Storm Warning on Sunday, Feb. 14. The Brazos...
The entire state of Texas was under a Winter Storm Warning on Sunday, Feb. 14. The Brazos Valley prepared for 2-6 inches of snow.(KBTX)

Meanwhile, ERCOT has initiated system-wide rotating outages only three times in the history of ERCOT, Dec. 22, 1989, April 17, 2006 and Feb. 2, 2011

A study by FERC and NERC of the 2011 cold snap, which led to similar widespread losses of power for much the same reasons, found “the massive amount of generator failures that were experienced raises the question whether it would have been helpful to increase reserve levels going into the event. This action would have brought more units online earlier, might have prevented some of the freezing problems the generators experienced, and could have exposed operational problems in time to implement corrections before the units were needed to meet customer demand.

“It is important to keep in mind that ERCOT itself does not own the generating plants,” Overbye explains.

He says the decision to winterize generators is up to the companies and organizations that own them. Texas does not have any laws requiring at least some winterization for generators. No action was taken to create requirements despite a 2011 Public Utility Commission of Texas investigation that recommended improving the winterization of generators.

Watch the full interview in the player above.

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