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Black-outs in the face of winter storms is a problem too often faced by too many Americans due, in no small part, to under-investment in our aging electrical system that experts suggest merit a D minus grade (perhaps on a sliding scale).  Washington, DC, storms regularly see blacked out neighborhoods and the Maryland utility Pepco sparking outrage from customers and legisators due to the extent of blackouts and slowed repairs.   Our aged and inadequately maintained electricity system is fragile and vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters.

To rectify this -- to raise the grade (other by simply claiming that America has the 'best' electrical system via blind exhortation of exceptionalism) requires investment. That investment, however, must be based on serious efforts to identify lessons from outages to help identify the most valuable paths forward to improve the system and reduce the blackout conditions too often suffered by Americans, which represent a drag on American economic prosperity, and are an indication of a fundamental threat to American national security.

To provide a context ...

When it comes  of the threat to American national security, in 2008 (hint: under President George W. Bush), the Defense Science Board issued a report on energy (pdf) which identified two critical issues: reliance on liquid fuel (e.g, oil) and

Military installations are almost entirely reliant on a fragile and vulnerable commercial power grid, placing critical defense and Homeland security missions at risk of extended outage.

Often derided as environmentally driven "greening" of the military, military measures for improved fuel efficiency and to improve base electrical systems (smartgrids, energy efficiency, renewable energy produced on base, energy storage, (improved) data and control systems for power management, islanding of bases to keep them operating if the civilian grid is disrupted) are fundamentally about improving military capability (think longer range ships due to more efficient engines) and secondarily about (often significant) financial savings ... and, well, they offer the tertiary benefit of reducing the military's carbon footprint.  

The Department of Defense views (and did even during the Bush Administration) the antiquated electrical system as a threat to national security -- which extends well beyond the risk to military bases.

When it comes to economic impact, the best (rough) estimate of annual cost to the U.S. economy due to power outages: $100 billion or nearly 1 percent of the economy (pdf: page 4).  For a fraction of that cost, investment in modernization of the grid (smartgrid and otherwise) would nearly eliminate that cost and provide other benefits (such as more efficient use of energy) that would boost the economy.

In other words, improving the U.S. electrical grid would improve national security, improve the economy, and improve our environmental situation.

And, now to Texas ...

Texans, in the wake of the massive storm that hit so much of the country over the past week, are suffering through a series of rolling blackouts due to inadequate electrical supplies caused it seems - by a combination of natural and man-made disaster.

Sadly, however, there seems to be too much false blame laying by important national figures rather than serious interest in understanding what is happening and why to lay the basis for an improved situation moving forward.

For example,

  • The Drudge Report has suggested that  the Texas blackouts were “a direct consequence of the Obama administration’s agenda to lay siege to the coal industry, launch a takeover of infrastructure under the contrived global warming scam, and help usher in the post-industrial collapse of America.”

  • Rush Limbaugh has put the blame on 'federal red tape'.  “It’s not just in Texas, that’s everywhere. And, folks, let me tell you something: If Obama gets his way, rolling blackouts will be the new norm. What do you think ‘green energy’ is?”

  • Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has issued a statement calling the blackouts an unacceptable safety risk that’s the result of federal energy policies run amok. “We have the desire, the resources, the knowhow and the will to build new plants, but federal red tape has blocked construction."

Simply put, one has to choose between utter ignorance or bald-faced desire to misrepresent the situation for political purposes when assessing comments like these.

Based on reporting to date, Texas' blackouts are not due to federal regulation of greenhouse gases or due to clean energy or due to any "Obama Administration agenda".  In fact, with the information on hand, the reverse looks to be the case.

  1. The blackouts occurred due to cold-weather causing traditional power plants to go offline, starting with two of Texas' largest coal power plants.  Water intakes froze, requiring the plants to shut down.  Natural gas lines faced risks due to moisture in pipelines, leading them to shut off.    Some 50 fossil-fuel plants went down representing 7 gigawatts of production capacity and taking about 14 percent of planned power production off line.

  2. Wind power production has met (and, it seems, actually exceed) its commitments to the Texas power grid -- wind-power has been producing its promised electricity service, unlike coal and natural gas systems.  Wind maintained delivery of 3.5 to 4.0 gigawatts (about 7 percent of Texas' requirements) to the grid.

  3. In line with Governor Perry's dreams of secession, Texas' electrical grid remains the most independent of the regional grids in the United States from the overall electrical system.  Other states' power production couldn't feed in to compensate for Texas' inability to meet its own requirements and help keep Texans warm and out of the dark.

As per the head of ERCOT, Texas' grid operator

Wednesday's rolling blackouts were not caused by a failure to predict demand accurately or to keep enough plants online, Doggett said, but by a widespread mechanical failure of more than 50 power generating units all over the state.

There was no single reason for the failures and no particular location, plant operator or type of power plant behind the problem, he said.

Frozen water pipes burst in some instances, but many of the problems emerged as ice locked up equipment that sends signals to valves, pumps and other device

Yup, truly does seem that the cause and effect is Obama Administration efforts to modernize and strengthen the national grid and policies that encourage energy efficiency, development of more secure and healthier energy systems, and greater resiliency in our electrical system.

As for item 3 above, Texas' electrical independence from the United States, this might actually be a key factor driving the rolling blackouts.  The best public analysis of the Texas blackouts, to date, lays out a more robust Texas connection into the national grid would have created essentially automatic compensation for Texas fossil-fuel power plants going offline.

If Texas had been more interconnected with the US, the way the entire Eastern Interconnection (MISO, SPP, PJM, NY, NE, etc) are interconnected, it’s entirely possible that the combined system would have automatically fixed the problems before the lights in Texas went out. It’s just physics.

When an operating plant trips off, standby operating reserves automatically kick in, and if those trip too, other plants should kick in. Further, in a fraction of a second, the voltage frequency drops across the transmission grid, and voltage support may also suffer. When that happens, the ISO’s system dispatch automatically sends signals to many other generators to ramp up, to bring supply back in balance with demand and raise voltage levels to reliable levels.

Again, we don’t know the exact sequence of the Texas failure. But it’s likely that if Texas had been more strongly interconnected with the US, the entire Eastern Interconnection would have instantly responded to the frequency/voltage dips and immediately brought more generators on line in surrounding states. So even if other plants in Texas tripped off, as they apparently did, extra power from plants in Missouri and Illinois and Ohio would have kept the lights on in Texas.

That would have avoided rolling blackouts in Texas’ cities. It would have kept the electric compressor/pumps running in northern Texas that send natural gas to Northern New Mexico, which lost gas supplies for heating in the middle of winter.

In unity, there is strength, safety, reliability. We know this. We’ve had 100 years of electricity system developments to prove it, over and over.

While it will take awhile to track exactly what happened in Texas and why, the early honest lesson to identify is not a need to reject 21st century technology and double-down bets on an inadequate system but the importance of increased investment in American infrastructure, the need for intelligent interlinking of the national grid, and the value of a Smart Grid to help manage disasters -- whether natural, man-made, or both.

Relevant Material:

Originally posted to A Siegel on Sat Feb 05, 2011 at 08:10 AM PST.

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