• Beau Steward

Texas Power Situation

Texas is dealing with a historic winter weather event. With a week-long freeze dipping close to -20C at one point, we're having a hard freeze that is having some hefty ramifications. One of those ramifications is not only are we having unusually high power demands, but we lost a massive amount of power generation due to failures to winterize power stations. Even wind farms have been hit with turbines freezing up.


There's a couple of major misconceptions about the Texas power system, though. Yes, it's true that Texas has its own power grid, separate from the other two national power grids I'll call west coast and east coast power grids. Texas' power grid is managed by an organization called Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.


I should point out that I'm no expert with how all this works, but I've had to pay attention to Texas power delivery in the past in previous jobs.


Hah Hah Texas Can't Handle Snow


Texas rarely gets snow. Normally, if there's any frozen precipitation, it's more ice than snow. Normally, I might join in the japes because, yes, Texans suck at dealing with freezing weather. Hell, they suck at rain, too.


But this event was kicked off with a deadly 133 car pileup. And then the weather got worse.


It's been many years since I've seen snow that stuck around longer than a day, let alone not be packing down to ice. This is definitely not even close to normal. We don't plan to cover conditions like this, because conditions like this are extremely rare. And, as of this writing, we may not even be done, yet.


So it's not wrong to say Texas can't handle snow. But holy fuck, not only is this a bit of snow, it's harsher weather than we've dealt with in a very long time. It actually is that bad.


Power Grid Island


The Texas power grid is often referred to an island because it's isolated from the other two national power grids. But if we're going to use such terminology, it's important to keep in mind that it's an island with bridges. We're not totally isolated. We have interconnects with the east coast power grid as well as Mexico, though we, currently, do not have an interconnect with the west coast grid at the moment (I don't know why, honestly).


I've seen various reasons why this was done. Some claim it's to avoid national regulatory things or taxes, though Texas power plants are still very much subject to national regulations and inspections, so maybe it's just a tax thing. There's also been claims that our power grid is more robust as a unified system and keeping isolated protects us from problems the east and west coast grids tend to have. But as we can see, when the Texas grid has issues...it has major faults.


But does it, really?


For the most part, our grid is pretty stable. ERCOT and the various providers have done a pretty good job keeping things going, for the most part. I'm not saying any part of it is perfect. Greed will always get in the way of perfection, and our power system is no exception. But we, usually, don't have major widespread issues. Localized on occasion? Sure. But that's why we have ERCOT to help alleviate those issues.


We are, definitely, isolated from east and west coast capacity issues. However, our grid was not prepared for weather like this. The major issue is many power generation stations, including a nuclear power plant, did not adequately winterize leading up to the freezing weather, causing those stations to shut down and/or leave the grid. So much power generation has been lost that ERCOT has been putting in their best effort to control power outages so that emergency services can continue to function.


And, of course, let's not pretend that this problem is caused by isolation. If we were part of the national grids, we would be increasing the burden on those grids. The east coast grid is connected with the Texas grid, but they are unable to export electricity due to their own winter weather related capacity problems. It may seem harsh to say, but being isolated is probably keeping this problem from being substantially worse at the expense of major discomfort to Texans. If the east coast grid can't send power to Texas, imagine if, instead, Texas demanded that missing 45GW of power generation from the east coast grid anyway.


ERCOT Is A Victim


Texas Governor Greg Abbott is demanding an emergency investigation and reformation of ERCOT. Abbott is not known to be tremendously intelligent with how things work, so it's not surprising, but it is annoying.


But let's explain ERCOT.


As previously noted, ERCOT stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and they are the organization that manages the Texas grid. The thing to remember is no one actually owns an actual overall electric grid. The grid, in this case, is kinda like thinking of the cloud in internet terms. It's made up of services and infrastructure owned by private entities. ERCOT only owns what they use for monitoring and coordinating with those providers. ERCOT also doesn't actually control anything, either. They can only give direction to the private companies.


ERCOT is like an air traffic controller for the Texas power grid.


ERCOT is not a regulatory body. They, likely, have agreements which they enforce with partner providers, but they aren't enforcing any local, state, nor national regulations, be it by policy or by inspection.


Blaming ERCOT for 4 million Texans being without power is like blaming an ATC for an airport being unable to land and take off planes due to a systems failure. And then there's the fact that Abbott is calling for an emergency investigation while ERCOT is still working through this problem, while 4 million Texans are without power. Their priority, right now, is to make sure power can be delivered where it's vitally needed, and that includes emergency services. This is why the terminology evolved a bit to "controlled outages" so that we don't have uncontrolled outages where we absolutely can't have it.


We know that the failed power stations didn't adequately winterize. If anything, investigations should be directed there.


But it doesn't have to be an emergency. In my job, we have outages. It happens. Thankfully, millions of lives aren't on the line when my databases have problems. But we focus on the problem when they happen. We don't do the investigation until we're back online. We review the situation in a "postmortem" to determine if we failed to prevent a preventable problem, and if we could have done better to recover. The reason to wait on the postmortem is we don't want to start the investigation during the outage, else it could delay recovery.


Imagine if ERCOT was unable to respond to changing conditions and an ER goes dark, or an emergency communications system goes silent, all because a politician needed to interfere RIGHT NOW. Abbott believes ERCOT is in the wrong and responsible for 4 million people being without power, and he believes they should be disrupted from their operations in order to play politics and look like he's doing something about the situation.


And In The End


At the end of the day, Texas is in a shit situation. I've been fortunate in that I haven't lost power. The worst for me is spotty internet and one of my dogs discovered she hates snow. We still have more days of freezing, and potentially more snow, so we're not quite through this, yet. ERCOT doesn't even know when we'll see the other side. The important thing is we should understand reality before we jump to flawed conclusions.


Texans are eating a shit sandwich, right now. Cut them a break and let's work on getting through this, to the other side.

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