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Keeping the Lights On In Texas . . . and Claire McCaskill’s Head

The big story in Texas this week was loss of electricity and the need for “rolling blackouts” in major urban areas and other load centers, which affected natural gas supplies into Northern New Mexico. What does it tell us?

According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the combined electricity grid and power plant dispatch for most of Texas, it all started when two large coal-fired power plants in Central Texas suffered mechanical breakdowns, likely due to very cold weather, and suddenly shut down. Their combined capacity is over 2600 megawatts (MW), and additional units lost or unable to start in the cold weather may have totalled about 7,000 MW in a system whose peak winter demand can reach over 60,000 MW. That was apparently too much of a sudden loss for the ERCOT system alone.

In electricity systems, the laws of physics rule: supply and demand (plus losses) must perfectly balance at every moment for the system to remain stable. So the ISO must have reserve units standing by to replace the lost supply immediately and restore balance. If there aren’t enough reserves, or other units also fail, the ISO has no choice but to order that some customer loads be immediately curtailed to restore this necessary balance.

It’s still too early to describe the exact sequence of events that caused the system to crash, or if it could have been prevented. But there’s a broad lesson not just for electrical systems but for political and economic systems.

When electricity systems were first built, they were local, typically just for a community or city, and the systems were not interconnected. It was every system for itself. As they spread, utilities gradually built more transmission, both to bring in power from plants located outside the load centers and to allow sharing of these standby reserves in case one system suffered supply cutoffs and needed emergency supplies from its neighbor utilities. Eventually, utilities merged and became even more interconnected. Now the entire US is highly interconnected.

About 85 years ago, utilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland formed the PJM power pool. The idea was to run their combined generation pool and transmission as a single, interconnected system, because it would both be cheaper to combine their dispatches and more reliable; a problem in one system could be easily solved by power flowing from the neighboring system in the pool. PJM made all of its members more reliable and so others joined.

After the blackouts in the 1960s and 1980s, other power pools formed, one for all of New York’s utilities and another for all of the utilities in New England. New York now functions as one system; all of New England functions as one system. Eventually other pools formed in the Midwest, in the Southwest, California and Texas.

Moreover, NY and NE are interconnected with each other, and NY is interconnected with PJM, which in turn is strongly interconnected with MISO, and then SPP and so on. The entire Eastern Interconnection now functions as one machine, and the regional system operators at PJM, NY ISO, NE ISO, Midwest ISO, etc all coordinate with each other in varying degrees. They’re all interconnected by free-flowing alternating current (AC) transmission lines, so power moves freely from one region to another. They all support and interact with each other, every second, every day. The lights in New Jersey may be kept on partly from plants in Illinois.

ERCOT finally moved to this power pool formation about a decade ago. But there’s a limit to this, because Texas chose decades ago to limit its transmission interconnections with other states, so as to avoid the “interstate commerce” that would trigger Federal jurisdiction. It’s the Rick Perry attitude towards whether they’re part of the Union or not.

Texas stands alone, and the interconnections it has with other states are both limited and of a different type (Direct Current), which aren’t free flowing; they’re highly controlled.

What that means is that when something happens in Texas, it doesn’t affect surrounding systems like Southwest Power Pool, and vice versa. But the price they pay is that when they need help, they don’t necessarily get it. And when there’s a severe emergency, as happened this week, their whole system becomes vulnerable, just to please an ideological insistence to stand alone.

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 [local] 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.

But the same lesson applies to the national economy. When the economy goes into deep recession, individual states get clobbered. They lose tax revenues as people lose jobs and businesses close, but their expenses for emergency services like unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and so on skyrocket. They can’t solve this acting alone.

But the federal government acting as a union can. The feds can and should automatically pick up the funding for these safety net programs the instant the states get into trouble. That federal spending is what keeps people alive, it’s what keeps the economy from completely crashing, and keeps unemployment from exploding even more. It could save the states.

And the federal government can do this over time. It can spend more now, when it’s needed, and cut back later, when the economy and the states are able to pick up the slack on their own. It’s obvious to any sentient being that we need lots of additional federal spending to help states that are going through budget crisis. But we’re pretending as if we’re not connected, that we’re not a union. That’s insane.

These principles are so universal, so obvious, so correct in both policy and politics, that it’s astonishing that there is a single Democratic legislator that doesn’t get it. I don’t expect Republicans to care; the current crop is either stupid, dishonest or evil.

But there’s no excuse for a Claire McCaskill to be cosponsoring “balanced budget” amendments or arbitrary spending caps that would cripple America’s ability to function as a union, to prevent the feds from providing the “balancing” function that has to be there for the people and economy to recover. She may as well be proposing to turn out the lights in Missouri. It’s that crazy.

And it’s equally inexcusable for other foolish Democrats to be competing with Tea-GOP nihilists on which safety-net programs to cut first and deepest. Every one of these efforts will hurt the public, and no Democrat should be promoting them.

Update: The Rush Limbaugh/Drudge and other conservative claims that the blackouts were the result of environmental regs or anti-coal policies is utter crap. [See Adam Siegel’s rebuttal here.] As I said, “stupid, dishonest, or evil.” In Rush”s case, it’s all three.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley