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The power is starting to come back on in Texas, after three days in which millions of people had no electricity during below-freezing weather. As of Thursday, about 350,000 homes and businesses in the state still had no power, but that was down from about three million on Wednesday. But it could have been much, much worse: The Texas Tribune reports that as the winter storm started taking power plants offline in the wee hours of Monday morning, Texas's entire power grid was within minutes of a complete failure that could have resulted in months of blackouts across the state. Heaven only knows where Ted Cruz would have flown to if that had happened.


Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the agency that runs Texas's weird Texas-only power grid, explained that as generating stations started failing, grid operators had to resort to what were supposed to be rolling blackouts in order to preserve the grid, although those blackouts ended up lasting days instead of hours as planned.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

"It needed to be addressed immediately," said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. "It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system."

Magness explained that if the grid operators hadn't acted as quickly as they did to shut off power in large areas, a few more power plants going down at the wrong moment could have triggered a complete failure. That would have resulted in massive physical damage to the grid's infrastructure that might have taken months to repair, as the Tribune explains:

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid can take months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

In that scenario, Johnson said, even as frozen power plants became operable again, there would have been no way to reconnect them to the grid and make use of the electricity they generated. Restarting the grid would also require very slowly bringing power back to homes and businesses too:

"It has to balance constantly," [Johnson] said. "Once a grid goes down, it's hard to bring it back online. If you bring on too many customers, then you have another outage."

The Tribune story explains that ERCOT has three levels of emergency action that can be taken to handle an imbalance between the available generating capacity and demand, as happened this week. At the lowest level, the agency can make use of the limited connections Texas has to other grids, like the one that serves the eastern half of the US, or even to Mexico's grid. That didn't work so hot this time, because "so much power went offline that other grids couldn't close the gap, in part because those grids were being stressed by the same storm."

For the next level, Texas has arrangements to drop power to big industrial users that have agreed ahead of time that they can have their power cut in an emergency. That wasn't enough to do the job this time, either. So ERCOT had to go to its last remaining option, instituting rolling blackouts that would reduce the amount of electricity going through the grid and keep the whole system from crashing.

Usually, those outages are limited to less than 45 minutes. But this week, the outages lasted days. That's likely because after ERCOT ordered companies to stop providing power to customers, even more power generation tripped offline, and it was not able to "roll" the outages effectively, Johnson explained.

The amount of power ERCOT needed utilities to cut back in order to prevent complete blackout was so great that the companies didn't have flexibility to roll power from one area to another to spread out the pain.

Well, A: We're glad it wasn't so much worse; and B: God damn Texas's government and utility operators — going back decades — for deliberately choosing a system that puts profits ahead of safety for its people. Texas's insular grid exists primarily to avoid federal regulation, and the price of that is pretty obvious this week.

Now that power has been mostly restored across Texas, the AP reports, the remaining outages are mostly due to damage caused by the storm itself, not grid operators throttling back to keep the grid from crashing.

The failure of all those power plants across Texas is itself a product of the state's abhorrence towards the heavy hand of government regulation. As the Tribune reported earlier this week, Texas utilities had been warned following a similar winter storm in 2011 that they should invest in winterizing vulnerable parts of their operations, to prevent future cold weather from knocking out power to millions. But thanks to Texas's weak regulatory system, those were only warnings, with no actual requirements for anyone to do a damn thing. Since winterizing the state's power system would have cost money, the companies decided not to spend the money, and here we are with people freezing in their homes. Hooray for the invisible hand of the marketplace!

This is all so fucking typical for Texas, the state that responded to a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 by making it harder for the public to find out what chemicals were being processed at factories around the state. Greg Abbott, then the attorney general, explained there was no need for plants to disclose what chemicals they have on site, because that's proprietary business info. But if people wanted to know what was going on in local chemical plants, they could simply "ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don't have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have."

For the moment, Abbott, now governor, is making huffy noises about How Could This Happen. But don't expect him to actually take any action to fix it — the Free Market will take care of that, every bit as well as it has so far.

[Texas Tribune / AP / Texas Tribune]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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