‘Keeping the lights on’, or some variation of this slogan is one of the most common advertising pitches you’ll hear in the power industry. I remember distinctly driving north on I-65 through Kentucky and seeing the ubiquitous bumper sticker ‘Coal, it’s what keeps the lights on’ a number of trucks I passed on the way to Louisville last summer. There’s even a song about it, that a contestant from America’s Got Talent wrote. The phrase comes to mind because it’s so fundamentally wrong in it’s finality.
Coal is only one of many resources that make electricity, but it’s electricity itself that keeps the lights on. Even more specifically, it’s the grid that was designed to produce, and deliver electricity, that keeps the lights on; but as many are keenly aware after Winter Storm Uri, the grid keeps more than the lights on when it's reliable.
We take electricity for granted because we believe that we can rely on it, and indeed there are entire organizations that are dedicated to the reliability and affordability of the grid. The second word in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is ‘reliability’. In ERCOT’s neighboring regions, Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the Midcontinent Independent Service Operator (MISO) serve these same functions, and seek to plan for a reliable and affordable grid. But like the anecdote above, about coal keeping the lights on, it’s not just about one thing. The demand for electricity after all drives the need for power plants to stay on.
At the height of rolling power outages that lasted five days and affected 3 wholesale electricity markets covering 19 states; over 4 million were without power. To be without power for heating homes, charging smartphones, or monitoring a dangerous situation via a stable internet connection, is a cruel irony when these resources are most needed.
Even homes that had natural gas heating were unable to use it, because it requires electricity to circulate the warm air produced. Many of the 59 people that died as a result of outages in the region over the past week, died because of carbon monoxide poisoning from using their car heating systems without proper ventilation. Beyond individual homes, water infrastructure was compromised as well. 13 million Texans were under a ‘boil water advisory’ due to failing pumps at treatment facilities throughout the state. To preserve the grid in neighboring Louisiana, the electric utility Entergy New Orleans initiated rolling blackouts at the behest of the grid operator MISO. Unfortunately, this caused an outage to water treatment infrastructure in one area of the city, and caused the Sewerage and Water Board to issue a ‘boil water advisory’ for the area. You don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone, and our electricity system clearly doesn’t just keep lights on.
A winter storm of this size and magnitude was not planned for, largely because the grid was planned according to past average temperatures, and power generators plan in a similar fashion. Natural gas supplies were scarce for power plants, because supplies came from well heads that literally froze, and available gas was diverted to homes for heating. The ERCOT system, which controls the grid in Texas has planned for decades around average summer peak electricity demand, and this has been sufficient for the most part, but the events last week have shown that this system has severe limitations. There are a multitude of takes about the market design of ERCOT, but aside from this, there were warnings.
In the aftermath of a cold snap in 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) warned that many power generators in the ERCOT system were unprepared for cold weather and could experience weather related outages as a result. Fast forwarding to today, and almost half of ERCOT’s 77GW of generation went offline. Of the estimated 45GW of capacity, around 34GW were gas, coal or nuclear generators. Only 11 GW of wind power froze due to a lack of proper weatherization for cold temperatures. Weatherization of power plants isn’t the only thing that the state could have done to maintain reliable electricity when it was needed most, but it certainly could have helped.
Maybe the supply side of this equation, the power plants, are the apparent weak link in many headlines right now, but this is backwards. We build power plants to fulfill a need, and one of the largest electricity needs for homes and buildings, is heating and cooling. The colder it is, the more electricity we need to warm up buildings, and the warmer it is; the more electricity we need to cool buildings. Insulating buildings and homes can keep this need for electricity lower, and in the south it is criminally underappreciated.
Homes in the City of New Orleans use 30% more electricity than those in other cities according to local nonprofit The Alliance for Affordable Energy. The city of Houston was ranked 34th in the country in the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) City Energy Efficiency Scorecard. New Orleans, 59th. Having more energy efficient buildings, is a critical part of the energy system that is all too often overlooked, and the strain on the grid caused by increased electricity demand for heating during the extreme winter temperatures this past week in the south is one of the largest drivers for the failures in ERCOT, MISO and SPP.
ERCOT could surely have benefitted from greater connection to its neighbors’ transmission systems too, which could have provided access to more power generation during peak demand. SPP and MISO faced significant challenges in it’s southern reaches, but the paradigm set by ERCOT carries over in many respects. A lack of access to power generation when it was needed was a problem in all 3 footprints, and although weather related power plant outages were an issue in MISO South, a lack of power flowing from it's neighbors in MISO North could have been a major factor resulting in outages for the region. From Sunday through Friday there were multiple Maximum Generation Alerts issued for the region warning that the system would be close to peak demand throughout most of MISO South. By MISO asked utilities throughout the region to initiate rolling blackouts to avoid the larger system failures.
In neighboring SPP, rolling blackouts were implemented for the time in it's history for utilities in 14 states. It was apparent throughout ERCOT, SPP and MISO that lack of access to power was an issue during the unprecedented spike in demand for not only electricity, but also natural gas. This issue is currently being investigated by the Louisiana Public Service Commission, who reported that suppliers of natural gas decided to sell into the market where prices were higher, rather than deliver to the state. One wonders throughout this event, could all three grid operators have functioned better if they could share electricity with each other in times of need?
Photo courtesy of MISO/SPP
ERCOT is notoriously isolationist, and does not connect to surrounding grids to avoid federal oversight from FERC. In contrast to ERCOT, the western border of MISO can share electricity with SPP across the ‘seam’ that divides both regions. However, this capacity to share power is currently limited by the amount of interregional transmission lines that connect the two markets. In September 2020, MISO and SPP announced a year-long joint study to address upgrades to allow renewables to cost effectively connect to the grid, and the process is ongoing. Providing a better connection between this seam, could provide a dual benefit - renewable energy like wind power, that provides electricity without fueling climate change, that also helps neighboring markets that may need it when demand is high.
Photo Courtesy of MISO
An even more important issue for MISO in terms of getting power to where it’s needed, when it’s needed; is providing a better connection over the commonly referred to ‘North/South Constraint’. Since the ‘Maximum Generation’ warnings were only instituted across MISO South it could easily be inferred that this was due to a lack of ability to import power from the north across the constraint. In any event, indications like drastically higher prices in MISO South, compared to the North, paint a picture of a better supplied market above the constraint, and a market in the south that has a high price and a scarcity of available electricity.
There are a number of challenges in grid planning throughout MISO, SPP and ERCOT which will all be vital to ensuring the reliability throughout increasingly threatening extreme weather conditions. The importance of coordination, and cooperation between regional grids is vital to a sustainable future.
We are living through extreme weather events that are supercharged by climate change. It’s critical that we shift our electricity system away from coal and natural gas resources. Nearly 50% of MISO’s grid is run on coal generation, and ERCOT’s grid is mostly powered by natural gas.
Integrating more renewables will be a challenge, but it will require more energy efficiency and energy storage resources as well as better planning. Key to this planning is coordination with surrounding regions that will be able to share in mutual benefits. In MISO South, there are opportunities for solar energy resources to be built that could harness the excellent sunshine that could produce electricity to be exported to MISO North when it’s needed, and MISO North could export wind power to MISO South when it’s needed. Oftentimes the issue with renewable energy is that there’s too much of it, and a better connection between SPP and MISO could provide both regions with abundant wind power that is often curtailed. ERCOT is blessed with abundant wind and solar resources as well, but without a connection to its neighbors, this power is often curtailed when there’s too much of it. Although ERCOT connecting to SPP or MISO would mean that they would be subject to federal jurisdiction under FERC, it may be time for the grid operator to learn how to share with their neighbors.
In the end, it’s likely that what keeps the lights on, is not coal, but sharing power with your neighbors.