New report suggests Texas grid was 5 minutes away from catastrophic outage

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Enlarge / HOUSTON, TX – FEBRUARY 18, 2021: Dialina Ganzo, 29, rests on a bed while taking refuge in a Gallery furniture store that opened its door and turned into a warming station after winter caused power outages.

With fall on the way to much of the United States, it won’t be long before parts of the country start to experience the cold again. Residents of Texas can be forgiven for the idea that triggered a bit of PTSD, given that last winter saw the state’s power grid near collapse, leaving many residents without power for days under. the freezing point.

A long list of factors contributed to the mess, and immediately after, it was difficult to understand their relative importance. But now the network’s regulatory and governance groups have drafted a preliminary report on the event, along with some recommendations for avoiding future calamities. A central finding is that the grid failure was closely linked to the failure of the natural gas supply, in part because natural gas processing facilities were among the places that saw their electricity cut.

Basic statistics

The preliminary report was developed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in conjunction with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a non-profit organization created by the utilities to help define standards and practices that maintain network stability. The project itself is not published at this point, but both have released a detailed presentation that describes the contents of the report. A final version will be released in November.

The outline of February’s grid problems is well understood: a severe cold snap increased demand at the same time as it caused the failure of several of the generation sources in the affected area. The problems hit a number of states, but only the Texas ERCOT network suffered serious failures. The neighboring Southwest Power Pool suffered for five hours when demand exceeded production capacity.

The Texas network is poorly integrated with the rest of North America, so it has not been very useful. As a result, demand exceeded capacity for three consecutive days, with the largest shortfall being 20 GW. For more than four minutes, the frequency of the ERCOT grid went from the standard 60 Hz to 59.4 Hz. If ERCOT had remained at this frequency for five more minutes, additional production sources would have gone offline, sending everything the ERCOT in a cascading blackout.

When everything is to blame.  The graph shows that each source of production capacity has experienced blackouts.

When everything is to blame. The graph shows that each source of production capacity has experienced blackouts.

FERC / NERC

The main cause of failures during the occurrence was the freezing of equipment, which ranged from individual gauges and instruments on large factories to icing of wind turbine blades. This represented 44 percent of production equipment failures. Mechanical failures accounted for an additional 20 percent. In between, there was an outage of fuel, accounting for almost a third of the outages. And “fuel supply” here primarily means natural gas.

When the gas doesn’t flow

At the height of the cold snap, Texas saw its natural gas production drop 71%. Processing of this natural gas for distribution fell 82 percent. Part of that is certainly the drop in supply. But clearly not everything, given that the treatment has bottomed out in two days before the supply did. The causes of failure were multiple, including freezing of equipment and mechanical failures due to the cold.

But a major problem was the loss of power to the gas distribution and supply system. Apparently, Texas grid operators had taken no action to identify natural gas facilities and prioritize their delivery of electricity when the rolling blackouts started. “Most of the natural gas production and processing facilities studied have not been identified as a critical load or otherwise protected against load shedding,” the report said.

It started off as something of a snowball effect. As processing and handling equipment lost power, the supply of natural gas plummeted, leading to the shutdown of gas-fired power plants, further cutting off the electricity supply and potentially cutting off even more electricity. gas infrastructure. At this time, the full extent of power outages in natural gas infrastructure is unclear, and it is not certain that we know at the time of the final report.

The task list

The report makes 28 recommendations for change in response to these failures, nine of which qualify as key recommendations. The most important of these is the recommendation to revise the NERC reliability standards, which outline what is expected of North American grid operators. The revisions include the construction of new plants to handle the operating temperatures which include the extreme weather events encountered at this location and to modernize existing sites accordingly. Producers should also inform grid operators of the amount of capacity available depending on forecast weather conditions.

Further revisions to the reliability standard should ensure that the natural gas infrastructure should be protected during load shedding events and that any failure due to cold on the network triggers the production of a corrective action plan.

In addition to changing reliability standards, a number of other recommendations relate to the supply of natural gas. All facilities that collect or process natural gas are advised to have a cold weather plan, as well as heating and back-up supplies. Cold weather forecasts should also trigger inspections of these systems.

Beyond these concrete recommendations, there is a long list of things to study. One of the simplest is that ERCOT should consider having stronger interconnections with the surrounding grid, which has been found to be essential to avoid widespread failures in neighboring states.

Of course, many of these recommendations could have been made the last time ERCOT had a major failure, about a decade earlier. This failure was also serious enough to trigger FERC analysis and recommendations. Finalizing the report in November will be much less important than ensuring that its recommendations lead to action in the years to come. Fortunately, it seems the FERC boss recognizes this. There was a similar investigation after Texas experienced extreme cold in 2011, but these recommendations were not acted upon, ”said FERC President Rich Glick. “We cannot allow this to happen again. This time, we must take these recommendations seriously and act decisively to ensure that the bulk feed system does not fail the next time extreme weather conditions occur. “


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