Last week when the Rant “went to press,” which is to say, when I wrote it Saturday, the arctic blast was merely a cold shot of weather like I have experienced dozens of times. I didn’t start seeing the chaos in the south until Monday. It was an avoidable tragedy caused by many things over many years.
Some places lost water supply and wastewater treatment. A colleague sent me the first picture below from a friend in the Dallas area. Here in the Midwest, we might think that’s an innovative way to keep beer cold at a house party. In this case, it will be used as toilet water once it melts, and it will be hard to melt with no heat.
Talking with another acquaintance, I learned that homes in Houston are built on pier and beam foundations with crawl spaces between the soil and the home floor. The need for this construction is mushy soil that shifts, so they drill down to something stable and build the structure on piers. The plumbing is in these unheated crawl spaces, and especially in old homes, pipes are freezing and bursting.
What went wrong? I explained most of it in recent years. It’s hard to predict what will happen and how it will unfold, but I could see the dominos lining up. For example, my image was one of an omega high setting up in the summertime. Silly me. It’s an artifact of growing up in the north where loads peak in the summertime. However, here in the north, we are electrically linked to the south via the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. The shortages in the south caused high prices all the way up here as a result. The screen scrape from MISO below (numbers are dollars per megawatt-hour) shows wholesale electricity prices from about $1.25 per kWh in the north to $2.70 in the south, at O-dark thirty in the morning.
The people responsible for this are very diverse, and the foundations of failure go back decades. Failure of critical thinking and imagination are, as usual, at the core.
ERCOT’s Frozen Wells
It was reported that “pipelines were frozen.” What? That makes no sense. Methane is an odorless GAS, compressed and transmitted at high pressure. I’m not sure, but I think (like I learned with California oil wells), a lot of what comes out of the ground is water, and that needs to be separated from gas and oil and disposed.
My guess is this was the problem in the Permian Basin, Texas’ Saudi Arabia of oil and natural gas. See here from Bloomberg and tell me what I don’t know.
I later learned that ERCOT’s deployment of rolling blackouts included substations supplying the Permian Basin natural gas wells. Flowing water doesn’t freeze, but when the pumps stop… Wow. Now that is a career-ending offense.
I’m as competitive as they come, but deregulating the electric market may be the largest culprit in this fiasco. This was explained beautifully two years ago in Texas Heat, An Energy Market. To cut to the quick, Texas has an energy-only market and not a capacity market. No one gets paid merely for having dispatchable generators available when February 2021 hits. If you put no value on capacity in Texas, you get no spare capacity in Texas.
Deregulation needs to be evaluated in the capacity markets (PJM and ISO New England) too because guess what’s happening up there – companies are building capacity, but what about fuel? Pfft. There isn’t enough. CPower wrote about this here. Last year, the Atlantic Coast pipeline was canceled, and these folks cheered. Maybe they should have a focus session with people from Dallas and Houston to get their opinion.
Renewables and Natural Gas
Renewable energy is not reliable or dispatchable. It floods the grid with cheap energy, making dispatchable, reliable thermal plants, including nuclear, coal, and natural gas, money losers. This is a market failure. I wrote the most reliable source of electricity is a pile of coal and nuclear fuel. Un-diversifying our energy supply is dangerous. Tim Echols, commissioner with the Georgia Public Service Commission, agreed. Like me, he described the threat but missed the trigger. It doesn’t matter. He was right. We heat with natural gas; we generate power with natural gas; we don’t build pipelines. Frozen pipes. Hypothermia.
Storage of anything but fuel is only suitable for arbitrage and a few hours of peak relief. I did a thorough investigation into this in recent months. In October I compared storage technologies and graded them on the curve, against each other. For Texas, February 2021, they would all get a 72-font-bold-F for failure. We will NEVER store energy for a days-long cold or heatwave, other than solid or liquid fuel.
We have some decisions to make, folks. “But, but, if we just did this and just did that, and we have this technology.” NO!
You need to understand and respect the brutality of negative temperatures, approaching minus 30 and colder. It incapacitates equipment and people and can kill very fast. Coolants turn to unmovable slush, fuels jell, oils turn to grease, moisture from your breath fogs glasses, face shields, and windows instantly. Fixing anything is 100X more difficult. I appreciate the job of the lineman and others working to keep the power on in brutal weather. The last thing they need is a dead battery to power a lift truck that a theorist in Princeton suggested.
I say the following with great respect for those who lost lives, but this was a cheap lesson. What if this cold blast happened a month earlier when average and record temperatures were ten degrees colder? What if this happens in five years after many more gigawatts of reliable thermal plants go dark?
I’m just a Schmendrick with a web browser and a keyboard. We need people who think critically and realistically about the ENTIRE system and then ask hard questions, or this problem will expand 10X next time.
 The R is for reliability. I think they lost it in this incident.
(2] Proven safe.
 Carbon capture.