This weblog post started off as a response to several fake news posts in various media, alleging that the recent power outages in Texas were due to wind turbine issues. While some wind turbines have failed, there are other, more important reasons for electrical power supply failures, resulting in the inability of Texas to provide water, food and energy to state residents, during – and after – winter storm Uri. Many of these are related to a toxic political environment, where the standard answer to any political question is privatization, where many other jurisdictions have found more nuanced solutions, often involving government participation.
In addition, the post has expanded into new areas, including the use of electric vehicle batteries and household power-walls to provide emergency power. If power utilities (corporations) cannot provide inexpensive and reliable supplies of energy, people will have to take energy production and storage into their own hands. It is noted, but not further discussed, that spot pricing of electrical power in Texas, has not led to a more equitable distribution, but to price gouging, despite this being illegal during an emergency.
Wikipedia states: “The electrical power grid that powers Northern America is not a single grid, but is instead divided into multiple wide area synchronous grids. The Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection are the largest. Three other regions include the Texas Interconnection, the Quebec Interconnection, and the Alaska Interconnection. Each region delivers power at a nominal 60 Hz frequency. The regions are not usually directly connected or synchronized to each other, but there are some high voltage direct current] HVDC Interconnectors.” Direct current is used to avoid any synchronizing issues between interconnections.
The American federal government regulated electrical power in the Federal Water Power Act of 1920-06-10. Its name was changed to the Federal Power Act in 1935. The content of the act has been changed at irregular intervals over the past century. Expressed less than rigorously, there are three electrical grids in the United States of America: The eastern grid, the western grid and the Texas grid, established so that the Lone-Star state/ Republic of Texas, could avoid regulation by the American federal government.
North American electrical energy production is coordinated by Regional Reliability Councils. These are: Eastern Interconnection with Florida Reliability Coordinating Council (FRCC); Midwest Reliability Organization (MRO); Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC); ReliabilityFirst Corporation (RFC); SERC Reliability Corporation (SERC); and Southwest Power Pool (SPP). Western Interconnection with Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC). Texas Interconnection with Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
Winter Storm Uri, has an official starting date of 2021-02-13, caused temperatures in Texas to drop to -20 C, in some locations. This caused serious water, energy and hunger problems, and a significant loss of human life. Accessing adequate supplies of water, food and gasoline has been difficult/ impossible for many/ some.
In Texas, wrath was initially directed at wind turbines. Many of the people criticising them are staunch members of the Republican party, and fossil fuel supporters. Fortunately, as will be shown below, many of these criticisms were regarded as fake news, resulting in a significant backlash.
Sid Miller, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, stated in a Facebook post 2021-02-16: “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas. The experiment failed big time. Governor Abbott’s Public Utility Commission appointees need to be fired and more gas, coal and oil infrastructure built.”
The same day Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”
Fortunately, there are wiser voices. Princeton engineering professor Jesse Jenkins tweeted: “Those of you who have heard that frozen wind turbines are to blame for this, think again. The extreme demand and thermal power plant outages are the principle cause.” PolitiFact reported: “Of the power shortfall that hit Texas, over 80% was due to problems at coal- and gas-fired plants.” Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas stated: “By far the biggest outages have come from our natural gas plants, a portion were down for scheduled maintenance. Others weren’t designed to operate reliably in extreme cold weather and others haven’t been able to get enough natural gas supply.” Even rapper Bun B (Bernard James Freeman) criticized Texas Governor Greg Abbott for falsely blaming blackouts on renewable energy.
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex, professor of energy policy, stated: “In Northern Europe, wind power operates very reliably in even colder temperatures, including the upper Arctic regions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden. As long as wind turbines are properly maintained and serviced, they can operate reliably in temperatures well below zero [0 F = ca. -18 C]. Humans, to carry out servicing and maintenance and operation, are the most important factor, not the weather.”
Various sources state that the operating temperature range of a wind turbine is between -20 C and +40 C. Admittedly steel alloys suitable for cold-temperature environments are typically used in wind turbines located in colder climates. Lubricants are used that retain appropriate viscosity for the climate where they are operating. Wind turbines are equipped with cold-weather packages that ensure cold-weather operation.
Active anti-icing systems are installed on most Nordic wind turbines. These can fail during a power outage on the grid, because they are dependent on external power sources. In a worst case scenario, cold, ice and older technology could result in a 10 percent reduction in annual energy production. With newer and larger turbines equipped with appropriate anti icing systems this loss would be significantly lower.
Blades without an ice-prevention system installed may need to be stopped temporarily in cold weather because falling ice could present a hazard. However, icing can be managed. Current anti-icing options allow wind turbines to be effective sources of power in cold climates.
It is interesting to see that in Texas, thermal energy sources, including natural gas, coal and nuclear energy did not receive the same criticism. Excuses were made that thermal energy failings were due to frozen instruments. The main culprit had nothing to do with instrumentation, but freeze-off, a situation where liquids inside wells, pipes and valves freeze, forming ice that blocks gas flow, clogging pipes. It disrupts gas production across the US every winter.
Another challenge, not generally cited, was that cold weather increased demand for natural gas for residential heating. There simply wasn’t enough fuel available to power the state’s electricity needs. Natural gas production was halved at the Texas Permian Basin during the storm. It fell from 635 million cubic meters of gas produced per day in 2020-12 to about 300 million cubic meters of gas per day during the storm period. This means that gas production was at a four-year low. It could take several weeks to restore supplies fully, due to equipment damage.
There are pragmatic reasons why a reduction in natural-gas supply could result in a reduction of gas to electrical power plants. Texas Gas Services, a public utility, explained it when requesting help from the public to reduce the number of people who could potentially lose the delivery of gas to residences during these extremely cold conditions. They said that conservation (whatever that is, in this context) is critical to avoid widespread outages. If an outage occurs, it will take time and effort to restore service. In part, because each residence will have to be checked for leaks before gas service can be re-established. If only electricity is lost, gas-furnaces should be turned off. When electrical power is restored, consumers are advised to wait 10 minutes before restarting gas furnaces to allow the natural gas system to adjust to increased demand and to avoid further disruptions. In other words, a residential gas outage could result in weeks of delay in getting service restored, while a residential electrical outage would allow an immediate restoration of power.
Many Texans have expressed relief that their state has few electric vehicles. Plugin Texas states that there were 8 397 EVs registered in the state in 2016. Statista estimates that in 2016, there were a total of 8.3 million registered vehicles in the state, indicating that about 0.1% of vehicles in the state are EVs. About 13 million people live in Texas.
Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) power flows, enhanced with two-way advanced meters, would give power utilities an ability to flexibly manage charging. The combined capacity of EV batteries could dampen demand responses and prevent brownouts = an intentional or unintentional drop in voltage in the grid, or worse, blackouts = a loss of the electrical power network supply.
Normally, there should be limitations placed on the use of smart technologies to manage power consumption. Power utilities are keen to flatten electrical consumption throughout the day, so they want consumers to heat their water, wash their dishes and their clothes at night. Yet, insurance companies are concerned the use of dishwashers, washing machines and other appliances at night may increase the number of residential fires.
A more appropriate response may be to charge EV batteries during off-peak periods, then to use them during peak periods. This may be managed on a household basis, or involve large parts of a grid. This is one way to reduce the need for supplementary power stations. In one study, using power in this way may actually increase the life-span of EV battery packs.
In Europe, the ISO 15118-20 standard, comes into effect this year (2021). The standard covers everything from electric bikes, cars, buses and trucks to ships and airplanes. It can control AC and DC changing, as well as wireless power transfer (WPT) and bi-directional power transfer (BPT).
During exceptional times, such as winter storm Uri, electric vehicle batteries, with appropriate charging technology, can function as emergency power sources. They would turn the energy in their battery packs into alternating current (AC) power to provide emergency backup power.
Most EV manufacturers are now recycling used battery packs into second-life storage devices. One of these is Tesla’s Power Wall, but many others are coming onto the market. Power transistors are becoming much more efficient and compact, which has resulted in more efficient and compact domestic power inverters.
Micro power generation in the form of photovoltaic cells, miniature wind turbines or even concentrated solar (thermal) power units will also help make electrical supply more robust.
Some solutions encourage the prepper in everyone, including do-it-yourself (DIY) manufacturing of powerwalls, suitable for talented amateurs.
An Aside: At Cliff Cottage, we removed our main living room wood-burning stove. At one point we had intended on replacing it with a more modern stove, but this has met with opposition/ procrastination from all of the residents. They comment that every time a new log is put on a fire, smoke/ toxins enter the room. Thus, what we are considering now is a battery pack that will provide electricity when there is a blackout. In addition, it should be able to provide extra power during peak periods, and charge itself off-peak. A related project (Turtle Power) is to build a 1 kW miniature wind turbine, with no visible, unintentionally accessible moving parts, and occupying a volume of less than 1 m3. Anyone wanting further information, or an opportunity to participate, is invited to take contact.
Fossil fuels cause significant environmental and health problems. They are also a non-renewable resource. Relying on them is not a wise long-term energy strategy. Texans, and almost everyone else, will have to learn to do wind energy better, to install micro power generation equipment, and to use battery power at home and on the road.