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.
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.