OPINION: Consequences, like chickens, come home to roost eventually. In the US, Texans learned this hard lesson yet again in February when a prolonged blast of Arctic cold crippled the state’s power grid.
While state politicians blamed frozen wind turbines for the state-wide power outage, about 4.5 million Texans shivered through blackouts that lasted for days.
This week, US energy officials pushed back against those blaming renewables for the widespread power failure that left millions of Texans without electricity during the February freeze dubbed the “Snowpocalypse”.
Causes of power outages
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (Nerc) released a preliminary report on the causes of the power outages during the freeze and outlined a series of recommendations to prevent the reoccurrence of outages.
According to the report, the February freeze triggered the loss of 61,800 megawatts of electric generation, as 1045 individual generating units experienced 4124 outages, derates, or failures to start.
The freeze also severely reduced natural gas production, with the largest effects felt in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, where combined daily production declined to an estimated 20 billion cubic feet per day, about a 50% reduction in average production from the first five days of February.
The assessment points to the freezing of generator components and fuel issues as the top two major causes of outages, with 57% of the affected generating units being natural gas-fired units that faced fuel supply challenges.
“The electric and natural gas industries need to strengthen their winterization and cold weather preparedness and coordination to prevent a recurrence of the unprecedented power outages,” the organisations stated.
They were familiar words to those who experienced a similar freeze in 2011, with Ferc having issued similar recommendations at that time.
“This is a wake-up call for all of us. There was a similar inquiry after Texas experienced extreme cold weather in 2011, but those recommendations were not acted on,” said Ferc Chairman Rich Glick.
“We can’t allow this to happen again. This time, we must take these recommendations seriously, and act decisively, to ensure the bulk power system doesn’t fail the next time extreme weather hits. I cannot, and will not, allow this to become yet another report that serves no purpose other than to gather dust on the shelf.”
There is a tendency to focus on one-dimensional explanations, but regulators and governments need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that the regulatory system is optimised and able to respond to the problems of the day — and more importantly, that the authorities actually act.
Unfortunately, it is unclear how Ferc and Nerc will enforce their recommendations as the Texas power grid operates independently from other grids to avoid federal regulation.
Authorities need to be vigilant to ensure that energy systems deemed wonderful are still able to respond when called upon.
As the long nights of winter approach, there are growing concerns that the power grids and fuel supplies will be stretched to their breaking point once more.
Growth in US natural gas production is helping to ease some of those concerns. The US Energy Information Administration expects that US natural gas production will increase to an average 92.7 Bcfd during the second half of 2021, before rising to 95.4 Bcfd in 2022.
But increased gas production won’t help when wellheads are frozen shut.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)