Fatherless Blackout

If you ever wanted to get a whole mess of Texans bent out of shape, you probably couldn’t improve on the job that the state’s electricity providers did during this week’s cold weather. Although “cascading” effects from a run of low temperatures were alluded to by all involved, it was the conflicting stories themselves – coming from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s Public Utilities Commission, the lieutenant governor’s office, and the power company Luminant – that seemed to be the main thing raining down.

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Beginning in the hour before sunrise, neighborhoods throughout Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas began losing electric power, for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour at a time. When the power came back on at Pease Elementary in Austin just before classes were to begin at 7:45 a.m., the sighs of relief among teachers, students, and assembled parents, were more like gasps – until the power went off again just a few minutes later.

A spike in demand for electricity was quickly offered as the cause for all the stress, and with temperatures hovering in the teens, even in normally mild Austin, the explanation seemed to make sense. Until, that is, people started doing a little quick arithmetic. High summer in Texas frequently means nearly every building in the state running its air conditioning and drawing on the state’s power grid. Winter, on the other hand, with natural-gas heated forced air contributing quantities of warmth to private homes and businesses alike, simply can’t compete with summer when it comes to electric load.

Conservatives had a hunch that the unfolding nightmare connected, somehow, to the state’s mandate to partially convert to green energy, wind farms in particular. John Hays, an Austin attorney in the energy sector, was among those with a sneaking suspicion. “What it really comes down to,” Hays said, “is we put these billions of dollars into an energy resource that’s intermittent and unreliable. In the course of that, we’ve been shoving out the reliable base load of coal and nuclear and natural gas.”

In the end, the wind farms (which still only contribute a small piece of the electricity pie) weren’t to blame. But Hays may have been right about the rush to convert to green energy, whatever the costs.

Luminant, a big energy and electricity player in the state, one working hard on its green image, was known to have at least a bit-role in the blackout saga. Around mid-day on Wednesday, the Lieutenant Governor, David Dewhurst, explained that a pair of Luminant coal-fired electric plants had been knocked offline by burst water pipes. A Luminant spokesman, Allan Koenig, stated that the plants, Sandow, in Rockdale, Texas, and Oak Grove, near Temple, were too small a part of the grid to create the chaos that customers were experiencing.

Something new, it seemed, had to have brought the plants down, and the rest of the power system to its knees. For, most of the state, while chilly, was not experiencing record cold and had never seen rolling blackouts during previous Arctic outbreaks.

Accuweather’s Southern expert, Frank Strait, confirmed that nothing all that extraordinary was unfolding, meteorologically. “It’s the kind of thing you want to be prepared for,” he said. “There certainly is a record of cold of this kind in Texas.”

Rumors were circulating in Austin on Thursday morning that Luminant, its new water-based scrubbing system down, had been scrambling in the late morning and early afternoon the day of the blackout to obtain a waiver to allow the plants to operate. Without the scrubbers, the plants would not be in compliance with emissions standards. The story went that the waivers had been gained at about the same time that the rolling blackouts ended.

Luminant’s spokesman, Koenig, when asked about the waivers, declined to comment.

Plenty of other power plants had gone down during the blackout, more than 50 of them according to ERCOT. During the worst of the crisis, the price for a megawatt hour had surged from under $100 to $3,000.

Had an ENRON-like power crisis come to Texas? If so, the open-markets folks and green-at-all-costs types just might have found something to talk about.

 

 

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About Harold Ambler

Harold Ambler has been writing about weather and climate for more than 20 years. He started his journalism career at The New Yorker and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The AtlanticWire, and wattsupwiththat.com, among other places. He lives in Rhode Island.
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One Response to Fatherless Blackout

  1. t0n3d0g says:

    Harold,

    Trying to remain totally objective over the impending energy crisis in Texas, one fact stands paramount above all others:

    The number of planned power plants to be built by TXU was cut from 11 down to 3 in 2007 during a period of population growth and unprecedented demand for energy in Texas.

    A little history:

    In 2007 ERCOT allowed the buyouy of TXU (now called Energy Future Holdings Corporation) by KKR, Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs. At $45 billion, it was the single biggest buyout in history and only came about as a result of energy deregulation in Texas.

    The first major news after the buyout was KKR announcing they would only build 3 of the 11 planned power plants to provide energy for Texan’s ever-growing demand. This news suggested a sudden and shocking professed concern for the environment by KKR, the culprits behind such the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco in the 1980s (see “The Barbarians at the Gate” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar).

    With the population of Texas growing quickly, the current number of power plants are barely able to keep up with demand. Demographers expect the population of Texas to double by 2060. The 11 planned power plants would barely keep up with outdated growth projections. Curtailing that number down to 3 seems ludicrous to anyone paying attention.

    The energy grid across Texas is interconnected regardless of the name at the top of one’s electric bill. The facts seem clear: we need more power from someplace before California-style rolling blackouts become a common occurrence for Texans.

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