Texas power grid was 'seconds and minutes' from months of total collapse

‘As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could’ve been in blackout’

Louise Hall
Friday 19 February 2021 12:32
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The power grid in Texas was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have led to months of blackouts, officials with the corporation that operates the grid have said.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas told The Texas Tribune on Thursday that the state was dangerously close to the worst-case scenario, forcing grid operators to order transmission companies to quickly reduce power.

According to the report, operators had to make the quick decision to employ what was intended to be rolling blackouts amid signs that massive amounts of energy supply were dropping off the grid.

“It needed to be addressed immediately," said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT, told the newspaper. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

Millions of customers in the state have been left without power this week as the harsh winter storm hit the area, with the death toll as a result of the winter storm continuing to rise.

Utility-scale wind power and coal plants all tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, slashing energy output as freezing customers increased demand for heat.

Generators were forced to cut the amount of power distributed in fear that if they had waited even one more minute “three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk,” Mr Magness said.

If the operators had not acted at that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months,” and left Texas in an “indeterminately long” crisis, he told The Tribune.

A worst-case scenario would have seen demand for power overwhelm the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin, told the newspaper that physical damage caused by such a surge could have taken months to repair.

“As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could’ve been in blackout,” she said. “ERCOT is getting a lot of heat, but the fact that it wasn’t worse is because of those grid operators.”

The operators’ last resort was to instruct transmission companies to reduce demand on the system with rotating outages for customers, which has led to days-long blackouts, officials said.

The blackouts lasted for longer than intended because after ERCOT ordered the rotating outages, even more power generation tripped offline, and it was unable to “roll” them effectively, Ms Johnson explained.

“The operators who took those actions to prevent a catastrophic blackout and much worse damage to our system, that was, I would say, the most difficult decision that had to be made throughout this whole event," Mr Magness said.

The ongoing public health crisis continues to have an untold impact on communities, and nearly 200,000 customers in the state we still without power on Friday morning.

To make matters worse, cities across the state warned residents on Wednesday that water levels were dangerously low and may be unsafe to drink with many suffering burst pipes and water mains due to the ongoing freeze.

Authorities have ordered 7 million people, a quarter of the population of the nation’s second-largest state, to boil tap water before drinking it.

In Houston, the city that has largely borne the brunt of the disaster, Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents will probably have to boil tap water until Sunday or Monday.

Across the country, the extreme weather has been blamed for the deaths of at least 56 people, with a growing toll of those who perished trying to keep warm.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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