Frigid Weather Disrupts Power Plants, Blackouts Spread Beyond Texas

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As blackouts continue to spread across the central United States, close to 3 million homes in Texas are without electricity. Frigid Arctic air has caused power outages and disruptions at generating plants as demand soared.

On Monday, the grid operator in Texas, ERTOC (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), gave a grave assessment of the deteriorating situation as it attempted to cope with unprecedented weather conditions.

The falling temperatures have frozen well-heads, interrupting the supply of natural gas to power plants. Some wind turbines have ground to a halt as they became encased in ice. The disruption in power generating capacity has lead ERTOC to announce rotating power outages.

Later in the day Monday, generators fueled by gas, coal, or nuclear energy also began malfunctioning due to the cold.

Dan Woodfin, senior director of systems operations at ERTOC, said the outages would continue until there is sufficient generation to meet the system demand. Woodfin went on to say, “We anticipate the need for controlled outages for the rest of the day, and perhaps, all-day tomorrow (Tuesday).

Figures supplied by indicated more than 2.7 million customers were without power at noon Monday.

With a frigid air mass pushing south from Canada, temperatures have plunged, reaching minus 15 degrees C in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. As the situation continues, meteorologists suggest the disruptions will continue to cause problems over an ever-increasing swath of the country.

Cold Spell Testing Texas’s Electricity Model

In Texas, power generators are paid for the energy they sell. They are not paid to keep reserve capacity for times of stress. Unlike monopolies that operate in other states, electricity retailers in Texas compete fiercely for customers. Monopolies are free to adjust prices according to market conditions prevailing at the moment.

Electricity retailers, such as Griddy Energy, face the prospect of sending skyrocketing bills. The company is actively encouraging customers to take their business elsewhere. A statement posted on Griddy’s website noted, “if the prices now, and those forecasted for the future, are too extreme for you, we will understand if you decide to switch energy providers.”

Just last December, Griddy announced an investment from Australian Bank Macquarie as well as a new management team whose focus was to find solutions to combat price volatility.

Texas Is the Country’s Number One Electricity Consumer

Texas is the top electricity consumer in the U.S. Buildings that use natural gas as fuel competes with gas-fired power plants.

According to ERCOT, the supply of natural gas has been limited to certain power plants. “Freeze-offs” of wells and pipelines in Texas, as well as Oklahoma, had curtailed the daily gas production of some 4.4bn cubic feet, a figure that equates to approximately five percent of U.S. supply, according to research company Wood Mackenzie.

During the peak evening period in Texas, ERCOT forecasted that the power demand would be well above 70,000MW. This demand is approaching the all-time high demand set during the summer of 2019. With close to 34,000MW of capacity off-line, the gap between demand and supply has resulted in customer outages.

The freezing temperatures are also disrupting the oil industry in the state. The largest refinery in the country, the 630,000 BPD Port Arthur facility, was shut down until such time as it is considered safe to resume operations.

Sylvester Turner, the Mayor of Houston, has expressed his frustration with the situation. ERCOT initially told people to expect rotating blackouts not to exceed 30 minutes. With blackouts lasting considerably longer, the mayor stated, “These are not rolling blackouts. They are systematic power outages affecting the entire state.”

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