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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s been two months since a series of severe winter storms led to massive power outages in Texas. More than 4 million customers were left without electricity for several days. At least 100 people died.

Texas residents have hoped to put their power grid troubles behind them. But now, there’s worrying news that the state might not have fully restored the reliability of its electric grid. Recently, on the evening of April 13, Texas came close to a series of rolling blackouts. Power demand across the state ran roughly 3,000 megawatts higher than anticipated, putting 600,000 homes at risk for power outages.


There were several reasons for this latest close call, including lower-than-expected wind generation. The lesson, though, is that Americans shouldn’t take their power grid for granted.

Back in February, what Texas learned is that too much reliance on any one source of electricity can pose serious risks. For example, during February’s Arctic blast, roughly half of Texas’ wind turbines froze in the icy conditions — taking at least 12,000 megawatts of power offline. That alone shouldn’t have crashed the power grid. However, Texas has doubled down on both wind power and natural gas generation in recent years. And so, when Texas residents turned up their thermostats in the frigid weather, all of that home heating demand quickly drained the state’s natural gas capacity. And that left some gas-fired power plants without sufficient fuel.

But why exactly did Texas hit such low levels of natural gas supplies? 

First, natural gas in the United States is prioritized for residential use. When the storm hit in Texas, families quickly drew much of the state’s available natural gas. 

Second, the frigid weather interfered with the pumping and delivery of gas supplies. Wellheads and pumping stations froze in the brutal conditions. That choked off the flow of gas to power plants dependent on constant, uninterrupted supplies.

A key lesson here is that power plants can’t store natural gas supplies on-site. Instead, they depend on a constant 24/7 stream of natural gas from wells and supply hubs. However, much of that gas comes from pipeline systems extending across hundreds of miles. And so, during February’s freezing weather, natural gas production in Texas fell from roughly 21 billion cubic feet to less than 14 billion. That resulted in gas-fired power generation falling by 31 percent.

Not every state fared as poorly as Texas, though. Oklahoma experienced the same frigid temperatures and failing wind turbines. However, the state pulled through, thanks to its fleet of coal-fired power plants. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt explained that “wind and solar dropped to almost zero production” during the storm while “gas wells froze and compressor stations went offline.” Coal-fired power plants filled the gaps, though, climbing to 40 percent of Oklahoma’s electricity generation.

Texas’s troubles are particularly instructive, however, since natural gas has become a key source of electricity for much of the United States. And Texas’ shift to wind and solar power is being replicated across the nation, too. In fact, President Biden is aiming to largely eliminate traditional coal and natural gas plants from America’s power grid by 2035.

What would best serve the baseload power needs of America’s 330 million people is an all-of-the-above energy mix. Modern coal plants and advanced nuclear power stations will continue to be necessary, since they can store fuel supplies on-site. That makes them the best candidates to carry the load when the weather doesn’t cooperate. 

Wind and solar continue to be added to the U.S. power grid in record numbers, along with more natural gas. To complement these changes, utilities must find ways to adequately value coal and nuclear power as the bridge to a robust future electric grid. 

Otherwise, a future “Polar Vortex” or other weather event could prove devastating without sufficient backup options. That’s why Washington must pursue policies to prioritize fuel security and reliability in order to keep Americans safe year-round.

Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.


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