All the oil, gas, and wind supplies in Texas simply weren’t enough to keep the lights on. Single-digit temperatures froze up much of the state’s energy infrastructure, leaving millions of homes and businesses without power. A systemic failure with tragic results.
For New Englanders, the natural question is: Could that sort of chaos happen here?
Generally speaking, our electric grid is much better equipped to deal with frigid extremes. We do, after all, endure these kinds of conditions at some point almost every year. Plus, our energy market is quite different from Texas’s, in ways that put our grid in a stronger position for such disruptions.
Our grid also has its weak spots, thanks in part to its reliance on natural gas. Few people know just how close ISO New England came to implementing rolling blackouts — the nonprofit grid operator prefers to call them “controlled outages” — to protect our stressed-out grid during the 2017-2018 winter. While ISO New England continues to take steps to ensure the juice flows smoothly during cold months, it makes no guarantees.
That said, consider New England’s relative strengths.
The Texas grid is essentially an island by design, largely independent from the states around it and Mexico to the south. While a few power lines cross the borders, they’re not for heavy importing and exporting. New England’s grid is an island as well, but one with many bridges to the outside world. Nearly 20 percent of our power in 2019 came from our neighbors: New York, New Brunswick, Quebec. In times of need, ISO New England can turn to them for help, although they might face similar weather conditions.
Our power plants are also simply better prepared for teeth-chattering temps. Federal authorities warned of disastrous consequences in Texas if its infrastructure wasn’t properly winterized after a cold snap in 2011. Those warnings, for the most part, went unheeded.
Here, the powerhouses are insulated and heated. Gauges and other equipment use lubricants that don’t freeze. The pipelines that deliver gas to generators are deeper underground here than they are in Texas, which makes them much less susceptible to cold-weather disruptions, said Dan Dolan, chief executive of the New England Power Generators Association.
Our water and sewer lines have similar safeguards that their Texas counterparts apparently lacked: back-up generators at treatment plants and pump stations, and pipes buried below the frost line.
Another key difference is what is known as the capacity market. Power plant owners in New England bid into this market to win payments so they’re available to be called upon three years down the road in times of peak demand. Texas has no such system in place.
It’s a pricey insurance policy for New England ratepayers, and a source of much debate in energy circles. As ML Strategies energy lobbyist David O’Connor puts it: The question has always been, is it worth the cost? He cites the old saying: insurance always looks expensive, until you need it.
Critics say this system enriches power plant owners without necessarily guaranteeing the plants can turn on when they’re needed most.
To some experts, such as Anbaric executive Theodore Paradise, this insurance policy hardly seems worth it. Paradise, a former ISO New England lawyer whose current firm is a transmission line developer, said the still-operating power plants could command super-high prices in the Texas wholesale market during the cold weather. That potential windfall, he said, should be an incentive for the savvy operator to prepare for the worst.
But Dolan, the NEPGA chief executive, said the important promise of future capacity market payments makes it easier to finance infrastructure build-outs in New England, including those that help ward off winter disruptions.
Alicia Barton, chief executive at hydroelectric and solar operator FirstLight Power, is among those who worry the existing market setup encourages too many older fossil fuel-fired plants to stick around. She would prefer rules that eventually sweep these plants aside in favor of more renewable energy and storage. Fossil fuel-accelerated climate change, after all, is spurring extreme weather events like the one in Texas. Better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.
The chief executive of ISO New England, Gordon van Welie, knows this well. The ISO used to issue warnings about inadequate gas pipelines in the winter, because heating customers get priority over the power plants. But van Welie said policy makers in the New England states have been clear about the need to wean the region off natural gas, and his team is trying to do its part to shepherd that debate.
It won’t be easy. Now, the region’s policymakers want to move cars and heating systems to electricity, for similar environmental reasons. Power demand in New England could double over the next 30 years. New generators are planned — primarily at offshore wind farms. But will they be enough?
Unlike its Texas counterpart, ISO New England has never resorted to widespread rolling blackouts. Still, there have been close calls, such as during a two-week cold snap about three years ago. Many natural gas-fired plants switched to oil fuel at the time while rarely used “peakers” were called into service, prompting the region’s available fuel oil to run low.
Van Welie said ISO New England has, over the years, created incentives for power plants to stock up on fuel and improved training and communications protocols to ease cold-weather stresses on the grid. Good fortune played a role, too. But we can’t rely on luck forever.
As with previous massive blackouts, there will be takeaways from the tragedy in Texas. Those in the industry will reexamine how to safeguard their particular corners of the grid from the inevitable wild weather ahead. For the rest of us, maybe the lesson will be as simple as this: It’s easy to take electricity for granted, as long as it’s there when you flick on the switch.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.