Power Outages Across The Plains: Four Questions Answered About Weather-Driven Blackouts

Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | An energy expert explains why weather extremes can require power utilities to take drastic steps that can leave millions of people without power.

Editor’s note: Amid record cold temperatures and skyrocketing energy demand, utilities across the central U.S. have ordered rolling blackouts to ration electricity, leaving millions of people without power. Energy expert Michael E. Webber explains why weather extremes can require such extreme steps.

1. The Plains states have a lot of wild weather. Why is this cold wave such a problem for utilities?

The central U.S. has freezes, heat waves, windstorms, droughts and floods. All of these events stress the electric grid, pipeline networks, roads, rail and waterways. Right now in my state of Texas, ERCOT, a nonprofit corporation that manages the power grid for most of the state, is imposing rolling blackouts because demand for electric heating is very high. So is the Southwest Power Pool, which serves customers in 14 states from North Dakota to Oklahoma.

About 60% of homes in Texas have electric heat, and most of the rest use natural gas or propane. Normally our peak electric demand is on summer afternoons for air conditioning. But in this sustained cold, electric demand is spiking to keep homes comfortable and pipes from freezing. This storm is more extreme than the most severe winter conditions that ERCOT typically plans for.

At this time of year, power plants that run on coal or natural gas often shut down for planned maintenance ahead of the summer cooling season. That means we have less capacity available than usual right now.

To meet the difference between high demand and low capacity, utilities are cycling power on and off to different neighborhoods or regions of Texas in a methodical way to keep things in balance. If they didn’t do this, there would be a risk of a much wider-scale blackout, which would be catastrophic and life-threatening.

Utilities impose rolling blackouts as a last resort to ration power when demand exceeds supply.

2. How do utilities plan for this kind of extreme weather?

Utilities everywhere follow the weather very closely. Temperature changes affect the need for heating and cooling, which drives demand for electricity and natural gas. Meteorological conditions affect the availability of wind and solar power.

Thermal power plants – which burn coal, natural gas or biomass – also need a lot of water for cooling to run efficiently, as do nuclear power plants. If climate change warms rivers or reduces their water levels, it could force those power plants to turn off or reduce their output.

Weather forecasting has improved as satellites become more abundant and computer models become more sophisticated. Utilities can take steps in advance of a major storm, such as asking customers to preheat their homes. For ratepayers who will do this, the utility may adjust their thermostats to reduce power flow when demand is high.

Power providers can also ask large industrial customers to temporarily shut down factories to reduce electricity demand. And they can give hourly or minute-by-minute updates to customers about rolling blackouts and provide real-time maps of power outages.

Utilities work year-round to harden the grid against extreme weather. They may build berms to protect power plants against floods, fill reservoirs in preparation for droughts, replace equipment that can get overheated in the summer or weatherize power plants for cold conditions.

Almost exactly a decade ago, in February 2011, Texas suffered a significant series of rolling blackouts when cold weather forced dozens of coal and natural gas power plants offline. This cold snap is testing the upgrades utilities made after that event.

3. Does having a diverse fuel mix protect against energy crunches?

Texas is blessed with multiple energy sources. Much of it is produced locally, including natural gas, wind and solar power. Over the past 15 years, the state has diversified its fuel mix: Coal use has dropped, wind and solar have grown, and nuclear and natural gas use have held steady.

Each of these options has pros and cons. Wind and solar do not require water cooling, so they work fine during droughts and floods. But they vary based on wind patterns, cloud cover and time of day.

Nuclear power is reliable, but sometimes nuclear plants have to reduce their output during heat waves or droughts if their cooling water is too hot or scarce.

Natural gas is a high performer, but in the 2011 Texas cold snap, gas plants struggled to keep up with demand because many homes and businesses were using the fuel for heat. That reduced the pressure in gas pipelines, which made it hard to physically move gas to turbines that needed the fuel to generate electricity.

Much of the coal burned in Texas power plants comes from Wyoming over a sprawling rail network that can be disrupted if a bridge or section of track is out of commission for repairs. Utilities store 30 days or more of coal in piles near their power plants, but those piles can freeze or be flooded, as occurred when Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston in 2017.

Because all of these options fail in different ways, a diverse mix is the best basis for a robust system. Today Texas has three times as much wind power-generating capacity as it did in 2011, which may help stave off the worst risks of a statewide blackout.

This extra wind will be especially important because about 30% of ERCOT’s generating capacity is offline right now, reportedly due to natural gas shortages. Some West Texas wind turbines have also shut down due to icing, but turbines in other parts of the state are partially offsetting those losses. ERCOT will investigate all power losses after this storm passes and use what it learns to make new improvements to its system.

4. California has had rolling blackouts recently, too. Is this a national risk?

California is a big state with power sources in many locations, so it relies on a sprawling network of wires and poles to move electrons from one place to another. Those power lines can sag when it’s hot out and fail when high winds blow trees down onto the wires.

Aging transmission and distribution networks can also spark wildfires, which is a growing risk as the effects of climate change worsen drought conditions in the West. To manage those risks, California grid operators will preemptively turn off the power to prevent wildfires. They also did this in August 2020 to ration power during a heat wave.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

Weather-related power outages are increasing across the U.S. as climate change produces more extreme storms and temperature swings. States that design their buildings and infrastructure for hot weather may need to plan for more big chills, and cold-weather states can expect more heat waves. As conditions in Texas show, there’s no time to waste in getting more weather-ready.

The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Michael E. Webber is a professor at University of Texas at Austin.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
New Parking Plaza Adds Capacity & Embraces Sustainability at San Diego Airport
San Diego, CA, USA
Strategic Energy Plan & Energy Efficiency Projects Help Manage San Diego Airport Energy Resources
San Diego, CA, USA
Integrating Complete and Green Streets for Climate-Resilient Sustainable Streets
San Mateo County, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: Winter Storm Power Outages Lead to Calls for Investigation

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.