Sunday, February 21, 2021

Texas Power Failures -- The Home Game

      Everyone from politicians to TV pundits to bloggers to your annoying neighbor on social media has taken their favorite bugbear and tried to pin the widespread power failures in Texas on it.

     There's a very succinct 2016 report from the Feds on risks to the power grid in Texas; read it for yourself and think what you would have done differently based on that information.

      "It was the Green New Deal!"  No, that thing is just a pipe dream, mostly from people who never threaded or soldered pipes.

      "It was eeeeevil capitalism!" -- The same wickedness that heats and lights your house,* then.  And the same evil that is presently losing money hand over fist in Texas, having hosed itself at almost every level: not enough products to sell and a damaged distribution system: kinda self-punishing, and that's before we get to the public-relations disaster part.  And it's a regulated industry; Texas may have dodged Federal oversight by having a self-contained electrical grid -- the state is slightly larger than the entire United Kingdom, after all -- but that doesn't mean they're unwatched: Meet the PUCT.

      "It was wind and solar!"  Nope; wind and solar outperformed predictions in the snow/ice and cold -- but that's nine percent of the electrical supply in Texas.  Enough to notice, sure, but not what pushed things over the edge or enough to stop it happening. (Other sources cite "wind" or "renewable" energy at 10% of the total in Texas, but that's as high as I've seen.)

      "It was a lack of weatherization," probably -- and one of the weak points was way back in the chain at the natural gas supply.  That stuff is pretty wet (one reason why bakers prefer electric ovens to gas ones) and apparently there are a number of ways to get tripped up by unexpected cold weather when you're handling large volumes of natural gas.  Another likely gotcha is that most peaking plants rely on copious amounts of water, mostly drawn from wells.  Ever had a well freeze?  I have, and one way it happens is to let the well sit idle in the cold -- for example, like at a peaking plant between peak demand times.  And so on.  Power companies aren't vertically integrated the way they once were; the outfit that generates the power you use is likely not the same as the one that runs it to your house -- and the company they buy gas or oil (or, yes, coal†) from is independent, too.  That means responsibility and long-range planning is diffused, as well -- and it's less easy to plan for low-probability events when you don't have any reason to get an overview of the whole system. 

      The question that's going to keep utilities and regulators -- and insurance underwriters -- up nights has multiple parts:  "How can we keep this from happening again (and not go broke preventing it)," "How likely is this to happen again," and "Who can we blame?"  Don't look for any consensus on the last one.  I'm hoping for an impartial report but my hopes aren't high.
* Arguably, my house is lit by capitalism but not heated by it: the local gas company is a "public trust," a kind of non-profit that takes in revenue but is barred from turning a profit.  If they have a unexpectedly good year, they issue credits to customers, but generally they put any overage back into infrastructure.  Is it a capitalist enterprise or not?  The rich guys who set it up got what they wanted, gas laid to their homes and factories at a price they were happy to pay, and their investment returned over time -- and the rest of us benefited.  The Founders and Framers considered religion a "Public Utility," i.e. a net benefit to society, without thinking the government ought to run it or caring if it made any money.
† A rarely-sung virtue of coal is that it's not terribly efficient, and the older a coal-burner design is, the more wasted heat it produces.  That's terrible if you are after wringing every last erg from the stuff, but it means a big old coal plant, shoving lumps of coal into the fires by brute force and heating up the whole power plant whether needed or not, is fairly immune to the cold.  I am reminded of this every winter by my chilly basement and outside walls: the constant fire in the original coal furnace would have heated the basement up toasty warm, and excess heat would have flowed up inside the walls and out beneath the eaves like a Roman hypocaust.  The modern gas furnace does nothing of the sort -- and by Code and for safety's sake, cannot supply heated air to the basement.  On the other hand, I'm not constantly wiping off a layer of fine, dark soot or having to feed the fire (or mind the Iron Fireman).  Progress!


Douglas2 said...

I'll note that ERCOT too is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation, even if the de-verticalized generator operators are typically not charities.

Not officially charities at least, I understand that some of them had arms twisted to keep generating even though they weren't permitted to sell the generated electricity at a price high enough to cover their fuel costs -- for at least part of the time.

And a surprising number of homes contracted their power through a retail power provider company called "Griddy", which does not mark up their wholesale purchase rate, so I suspect that there will be a lot of calls for bill relief when people (who were lucky enough to have power) discover that the heat-strips on their heat pump were drawing power that cost $9/kWH instead of their normal few pennies running the heat pump within the temperature range where it has advantageous C.O.P.

I've been annoyed by people arguing their fixed position from both wings when they managed to temporarily fool my with 'chartmanship' in clever cropping or presentation of EIA.GOV data. My fear is that the 'corrective' actions that will follow will be driven by the 'seen' half of Bastiat's That Which is Seen vs. That Which is Not Seen

RandyGC said...

Who can we blame?

Oh, oh, I know that one! "Anybody but me!"

jdunmyer said...

RE coal-fired power plants being immune from cold, nasty weather problems: IIRC, some years ago (probably 40 or more), we had a power plant a few miles from me that had problems with the coal pile freezing up so the big end loaders had trouble getting the coal into the crushers. Don't remember the details anymore.

That plant ran for 50+ years with little downtime, now it's gone. I've read that the power company, in its zeal to "go green" will soon not have enough base-load power to supply their total customer base, meaning that they're hoping that the neighbors have enough spare capacity to help out.

Unknown said...

"and by Code and for safety's sake, cannot supply heated air to the basement"

Any idea why? I've got ducts running thru the cellar now; often thought of punching a hole in one to get some warmth. I'm sure there are gas heated basements somewhere. ... Bob

Cop Car said...

Our basement (built in 1999, new HVAC installed in 2014) is heated by gas in really cold weather - heat pump at moderate temperatures. I keep the vent louvers closed during the summer months in order not to freeze my husband out of his basement den.

Eaton Rapids Joe said...

"Cottages" are pretty common in Michigan. Most people know how to winterize one or know somebody who knows how to do so.

From what I see, most of the heat was to protect the plumbing and there just was not enough. If there had been time to roll out the message, containers could have been filled with water, pipes drained, traps filled with antifreeze or salt and one room could have been heated. Or folks could have huddled in a water-bed or beneath and electric blanket.

But, alas, they were caught flat-footed and while some folks may have done that (drained their plumbing) nowhere near enough did to avoid the blackouts.