The Texas Grid is the Latest Too-Big-to-Fail Story

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Blame is being assigned at warp speed for the massive power outages on the Texas grid, but the most basic danger isn’t being discussed: Big grids by their nature are prone to big failures.

Texas grid

By SV Production/Shutterstock.com

That’s not to say we should do away with large grids — they offer an efficient way to deliver power to many people over a dispersed geography. But as forward thinkers in energy have warned, big grids have Death Star-like vulnerabilities, so they benefit from the insurance of microgrids and distributed energy resources (DERs), especially as society’s reliance on electric power deepens.

We’ve seen sweeping grid failures before: Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy, to name two in the last decade. Earlier, in 2003 swaths of the Northeast, Midwest and eastern Canada lost power in a cascading failure precipitated by a wire coming in contact with a tree.

This week Texas came perilously close to being the poster child for the kind of event grid operators  exist to prevent: total collapse of a grid when demand for power exceeds supply, disrupting grid frequency.

If too many power plants fail, a cascade of failure can ensue. “If the frequency goes too low that in itself causes more generators to trip off line,” said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT, the grid operator for most of Texas.

ERCOT saw the threat quickly emerging as severe cold caused demand to skyrocket to historic levels and about 185 power plants failed under the extreme conditions.

Had the grid collapsed, the US’ second largest state may have been without electricity for months, according to ERCOT. So the grid operator instituted the rolling blackouts to restore balance. This act, coupled with power outages from storm damage, left millions of Texans without power in freezing conditions, some for days. 

So the worst didn’t happen, but it was still pretty bad.

What is the problem with big grids, exactly? 

“These systems are vulnerable to cascading failure when one component is challenged, and they are predicated on a narrow band of operating conditions,” said Duncan Campbell, vice president for project analysis at Scale Microgrid Solutions. “For example, the gas supply being taxed by cold weather in Texas has lead to ~25 GWs of generator failures, which caused rolling blackouts, which makes heat (both electric and gas) difficult to maintain, and also taxes water treatment facilities knocking out water and sewage, all while cell towers are down because they didn’t have sufficient diesel backup.”

Kay Aikin, founder and CEO of Dynamic Grid, describes the grid as “brittle.”

Read related story: Texas on the Verge of an Energy Catastrophe: How Microgrids are Helping

microgrids

Kay Aikin, Dynamic Grid

“There are differences between dynamic systems and static systems. The current grid is very, very stiff, very brittle, and what you really want are systems that are flexible,” said Aikin, who is a full member of the Gridwise Alliance, which advises the US Department of Energy on grid modernization and architecture.

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Computers offer an example of a technology that evolved over the years from brittle to distributed and flexible. Early computing relied on large monolithic machines that easily failed. Now computing is undertaken by a federation of small devices. If one fails the others pick up the slack. “The Internet is a prime example of a distributed system,” Aikin said.

She noted that microgrids create flexibility because they can be turned on and off to help balance the power grid.

In fact, microgrids did jump in to help out, but their numbers remain few in Texas, so the flexibility they offered was minimal.

See Microgrid Benefits: Eight Ways a Microgrid Will Improve Your Operation…and the World

So why aren’t there more microgrids? 

In truth, microgrids are coming. Research analysts like Guidehouse are forecasting significant growth. But clearly it’s not happening fast enough, partly because of institutional inertia and partly because of the way utilities are compensated for energy improvements.  

microgrids

Matt Nyquist, Concord Engineering

Utilities have historically been slow to react to vulnerabilities. Energy infrastructure is vast and improvements have a high price tag that ultimately gets pushed to the ratepayer, making them unpopular,” said Matt Nyquist, project manager for Concord Engineering.

Another issue, he said, is that utility decision makers look at the rate of return they will receive from any given capital investment. Often increasing production or services pencils better for them than microgrids. “This could change if weak utility services start disrupting the bottom line,” Nyquist added.

Scale Microgrid’s Campbell foresees energy customers moving ahead on their own to ensure electric reliability.

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Duncan Campbell, Scale Microgrid

“If the large society-wide system is failing the challenge of retooling for uncertainty, distributed energy is likely to be an emergent phenomena rather than a planned one. Just like we’ve seen in California. People are taking matters into their own hands. To me, this is the great challenge of DERs: policymakers have the opportunity to harness the power of DERs and use them to deliver great societal benefits (as shown in the recent Vibrant Green Energy study), but if they don’t DERs are still going to happen, they’ll just be deployed in a hyper-atomic manner without regard for the larger system. This is a make-or-break moment for regulators to either embrace DERs or watch them chip away at the system. Everyone should be pushing for the former,” Campbell said.

How many microgrids in Texas?

Isaac Maze-Rothstein, research analyst for Wood Mackenzie, tracks microgrids state by state. He told Microgrid Knowledge that he’s following 269 operational microgrids in Texas, with a total capacity of just over 700 MW.  “While most microgrids in Texas support commercial customers, we’ve identified military bases, universities, hospitals, senior living homes, grocery stores, military and critical water infrastructure that all have microgrids,” he said. Microgrids are used during this type of crisis as back up power for their customers who lose power. They also are used as grid resources. A facility may not lose grid power but choose to island from the grid anyway to take strain off the grid when demand is high. The microgrid’s onsite generators supply the facility with power during this period. Maze-Rothstein cited action taken by the Brooke Army Medical Center as an example. 

For its part ERCOT said in a news conference this morning that the Texas grid is no longer operating under emergency conditions. Now the post mortem on the storm will begin.

“We’ll begin the process of analyzing and looking at the situation immediately,” said Bill Magness, ERCOT president and CEO. There are legislative hearings scheduled for next week. We have an ERCOT meeting set next week to delve into this issue and look at what happened and look at what could be better. Texas can’t afford for this to happen again. There are a lot of ideas about how to make that different. We want to participate in the process of considering those ideas. If there are things different that we could do better, we want to hear about it.”

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. Ronnie Lipschutz says:

    But don’t forget: solar probably did not work that well during the storm (not blaming renewables; just noting that overcast weather is not great for solar…).

  2. Surviving N-minus-1 in Transmission loops versus Distribution radials: 60kV and above transmission loops through substations are the preferred redundancy configuration. N-1 meaning if one transmission feed to a substation is lost, any other clearance (lockout tagout) planned will still keep at least one robust source to the sub with no interruptions. Transmission relay packages tend to be in two redundant trains and with omni-directional power flow you’ll have polarizing potential to impedance relays with pilot communication rather than straight overcurrent relays that can trip out of section..
    Then there’s distribution systems 21kv, 12kv, & older 4k. Most urban and high density rural have one or more distribution backtie capability, but even so they are operated solely in radial feeds. This is where you’re installing your microgrids. On the distribution feeders/circuit breakers you’ll have a single Ground and Overcurrent relay package that are strictly one-way directional (no polarizing POT0, an underfrequency relay and if there’s a small CoGen you’ve also got a Negative Sequence relay. And, in distribution the N-1 always incurs a drop/interruption before pickup by FLISR/Smart Grid computer or operator switching restores via a backtie. If you’ve got no back-tie because you are at the end of a radial feed and you are a connected microgrid, the microgrid becomes your N-2 or complete-out scenario.

  3. Mohamed Cassam says:

    In Texas every owner or renter of a single family residence worth $500,00 or more owns or leases at least two cars, usually gas guzzlers. Assume then that just one of these is a plugin hybrid with appropriate nano or microgrid infrastructure serving said residence and adjacent residence .
    100, 000 Toyota hybrids with battery capacity averaging 20 KW = 2 000 Mw.. Since such Texan households must own, lease or rent at least 2 vehicles, and hybrids cost the same as gas powered vehicles, the net cost of owning the hybrid is zero. In addition the power supplied ex-battery is cost free so s net income generator assuming hybrid is driven less than 20 miles per day.
    So those readers in Texas who lost power please do the sums.

    • How many of those 100k hybrids will be located at apartment complexes with no charging stations and no way to dispatch their battery back into the grid? At least half? You are dreaming if you think landlords are going to retrofit with charging stations.

  4. ““We’ll begin the process of analyzing and looking at the situation immediately,” said Bill Magness, ERCOT president and CEO. “There are legislative hearings scheduled for next week. We have an ERCOT meeting set next week to delve into this issue and look at what happened and look at what could be better. Texas can’t afford for this to happen again.””

    I wonder when something like this happened about 10 years ago if ERCOT said that same thing. “Texas can’t afford for this to happen again.” What ERCOT may find is some established housing communities might want their own mini-grids and resiliency, folks will look long and hard at solar PV and energy storage. One guy from Texas posted he has solar PV and four TESLA power walls and is squeaking by. Yeah, you may have to squeegee snow off of your solar PV panels, in the long run, it is better to have some generation with clouds instead of no power until the temperature rises until natural gas goes back to gas state and fueled generators can be started up once again.

    With the cost of technology today one can install an over-built solar PV system plus energy storage, when used with a BEV can save enough on energy costs to pay the system of in less than 10 years, right now that seems to be the frequency of the grid failures in Texas.

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