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One Year Later: Lessons Learned from Legendary ‘Texas Freeze’

The soundbites and images were startling. Blackouts. Burst pipes. People dead from extreme cold and carbon monoxide poisoning. This week marks one year since the coldest weather in generations hit Texas.

A year later, energy policy experts in Pennsylvania and across the nation are looking for lessons to be learned from those failures.

“There were multiple errors, but green energy failed at a critical time, and we no longer had fossil fuels and baseload power systems to back them up,” says H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., a Texan serving as senior fellow on environmental policy for the Heartland Institute.

“What led to the crisis and the blackouts is 20 years of bad policies pushed by politicians on both sides of the aisle from Washington, D.C. and here in the state of Texas that were propping up one form of unreliable variable generation over another, which is good natural gas and clean coal thermal generation that has been diminished because of these market-distorting policies, subsidies if you will,” said Jason Isaac, a four-time Texas state representative now serving as director of Life: Powered at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

“That’s why we’ve seen this incredible growth in this variable generation that’s now a third of our grid in the state of Texas in wind or solar that we’re dependent on when the wind blows or the sun shines, and there’s no backup generation requirements for those sources of electricity generation,” he said.

Solar was virtually non-existent in terms of electricity generation at the time of the storm. Wind dropped to 1.5 percent of the electric generation.

“It’s, again, 33­­ percent of our grid,” said Isaac. “That’s unbelievable, and over 90 percent was coming from the other 66 percent of the grid, natural gas, coal, and nuclear.”

“There’s a reason we never had something like this before in the middle of winter,” said Burnett. “That’s because we never had so little reliable baseload power as part of our system.”

It should serve as a wake-up call for other states, especially at a time when federal and state legislators are pushing the Green New Deal and related measures.

“The national takeaway on the crisis that we experienced in Texas, the energy capital of the world, if you will, is that we need good, reliable natural gas, coal, and nuclear,” said Isaac.

The Sunrise Movement, a youth movement to “stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process,” sees things differently. Sunrise said in an email it is “building an army of young people” to make climate change an urgent priority across America.

“(We want to) end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people,” according to its website.

And Sunrise has its eyes on Texas, where a primary election is scheduled for March 1.

“We have an opportunity to send our own — Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar — to Congress to fight for us and win a Green New Deal,” Sunrise said in an email to supporters. Republicans, corporate Democrats, and Big Oil want you to forget what happened one year ago in Texas, but we’ll never forget.”

Pointing to the remarks from Sunrise, Isaac said they are laughable at best.

“The Green New Deal is about controlling everything we do in our lives and increasing the cost of energy, and expensive energy hurts the poor more than anyone else,” said Isaac. “If we had the Green New Deal here in Texas, our electric bills would be triple what they were, the reliability of electricity would be laughable, and deaths last year would have been much more horrendous than they already were.”

“Sunrise wants to double down on the policies that created the very problem,” said Burnett. “We had 200 people die last year during this weather.”

The indoor temperature of Burnett’s home was in the 50s after he lost power.

“The Sunrise Movement wants more wind and more solar, and that’s great, unless the wind stops blowing like it did last February and snow falls and covers all your solar panels,” said Burnett. “To be fair, the wind came back up, but by then, the turbines had frozen, (and) you don’t want turbines turning on and throwing icicles across highways.”

Isaac holds firm to his position on the need for natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy.

“Wind and solar is habitat and environment destroying technology that increases the cost of electricity, does nothing to improve the environment, and just winds up hurting the poor most,” says Isaac. “It increases the unreliability of our grid and the instability.”

It was a close call in Texas last year, one that should cause other states to wake up to what Isaac calls a “cult-like fascination with decarbonized electricity.”

“We were nearly four minutes away from a complete grid collapse because renewable energy was not producing any electricity,” says Isaac. “That would have been completely devastating to Texas. We would still be rebuilding today. Millions of people would have fled the state because of this, and just thousands of people would have died.”

“ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) made some terrible decisions,” says Burnett. “After the power outage, they wanted to get the lights on immediately, so they said, ‘natural gas plants, you have to ramp up,’ but then they cut off power to switching stations for natural gas and for storage for natural gas, so there was no power heating the pipelines or the switches and the plants were using gas at an enormous rate, and those pipelines and switches froze.”

“That would not have happened with a coal plant because coal typically has six months of capacity sitting around in a stockpile,” says Burnett. “They’re not going to run out if the switching stations freeze, but those coal plants had closed, so there were multiple errors.”

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PA Power Grid Up to Cold Weather Challenges, Experts Say

Nearly a year ago, Texas’ electrical grid buckled under a historic freeze. More than 200 people died, and millions were left without power for days in subfreezing temperatures.

Industry experts in Pennsylvania said they have learned harsh lessons from the Texas tragedy as they take steps to guard against a similar catastrophe in the Keystone State.  That is good news since a colder than average winter is predicted for 2022.

And Pennsylvania already has built-in advantages over Texas, which has operated for decades on its own deregulated power grid that industry watchdogs blamed in part for last year’s crisis.

The northeast region is accustomed to frigid temperatures and stark weather shifts. So, some measures that Texas grid operators and utility companies took after last year’s cold snap, such as wrapping electric cables with rubber insulation and enclosing infrastructure, are already standard techniques here, said Paul McGlynn, executive director of system operations at PJM Interconnection, one of the country’s largest grid operators.

On top of that, Pennsylvania is part of the Eastern Interconnection, a network of more than a dozen smaller operating authorities that includes PJM Interconnection, whose footprint includes 13 states and the District of Columbia. That gives grid operators more flexibility to divert energy to parts of the country experiencing upticks in demand due to extreme weather.

The state also has a large natural gas supply it can rely on in a pinch, McGlynn said, whereas many Texas power plants were forced to operate at a fraction of their capacity because of a gas shortage that forced some companies to pay more than one billion dollars on the spot market to secure what little gas was available.

“In this part of the county, we’re used to the cold weather,” McGlynn said. “A lot of our facilities are already designed with much colder temperatures in mind. We plan for the peak seasons of the year all year long…We have the ability to rely on importing power from neighbors, and we also export to our neighbors during stressed conditions.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s office did not respond to a request for comment about initiatives that could help shore up any potential problems with Pennsylvania’s power grid. However, McGlynn says he feels the overall power grid here is stable and secure, even if the state experienced a historic cold snap, propelled by a polar vortex– an event that has challenged Pennsylvania’s grid in the past.

And he is not alone in that assessment, as the nation’s grid monitor, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, outlined in an annual winter assessment that PJM Interconnection “expects no resource problems” this winter because “installed capacity is almost three times the reserve requirement.”

The Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative echoed those findings in its own state-of-the-grid report, issued last month.

“The Eastern Interconnection remains strong, and that the transmission planning activities have yielded a system that is reliable and well-coordinated on a regional and interconnection-wide basis,” the report said. “Going forward, continued vigilance and effective use of planning evaluations both today and in the future are essential to ensure that individual regional transmission plans and the impact of generator retirements and additions complement, rather than conflict with, the regional plans of neighboring Planning Coordinators.”

The Texas tragedy is instructive for grid operators across the county on how to avoid paralyzing blackouts, McGlynn said. And previously, PJM told DVJournal that the grid that serves Pennsylvania is becoming more decentralized, which also helps to prevent widespread outages.

“We do a lot from a lessons-learned perspective. We take reliability very seriously,” he said. “We do a lot to look at not only internally on our own lessons learned, but we look to the industry to see what happened in other parts of the country, and then we line up our processes and procedures and things we use to see how we can improve and what we should improve. We’re more reliable today because of it. It’s good to keep your eyes open.”


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