ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A record cold snap across Texas wiped out power to millions and caused billions of dollars in damages.
The electric grid was completely unprepared, and Texans are still recovering.
New 8’s James Gilbert spoke with RIT public policy professor Eric Hittinger on how our grid is more protected, why wind turbines are not to blame, and more.
ERIC, WHAT ARE YOU SITTING IN FRONT OF? [An image of powerlines from Niagara Falls into Rochester]
“One of the things that people around here do not know and should know and be proud of is that Upstate New York is actually the cleanest electricity grid in the US. It’s hydropower and nuclear, that’s most of our electricity, with some natural gas.”
SO OUR ELECTRICITY IS MOSTLY FROM RENEWABLE?
“Well, zero carbon. Nuclear, that’s a whole can of worms, but between nuclear and hydro, we’ve been clean electricity for a while. Wind and solar a little bit, but it’s mostly those older sources that have been giving us the cleanest grid in the country”
WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL TAKEAWAYS WHEN YOU SAW THE POWER STARTED GOING OUT IN TEXAS?
“With the power going out in Texas, my concern as a person who studies electricity systems, is frankly, what happens to the customers. In the world of electricity, there’s more and less expensive electricity, and there’s different ways to design systems, but especially when it’s cold, when customers lose power, it starts to become a problem pretty quickly.
“You could lose power for an hour and that’s okay, but in Texas people were losing power for days and they’re not prepared for the cold like we are here in Rochester.”
WHAT DOES THEIR ENERGY GRID RELY ON?
“In Texas, natural gas generation is a big share of their generation, they also have some coal, some nuclear power, and Texas is actually the leading state in the US for wind power. They have a decent chunk of their electricity that comes from wind.”
WIND TURBINES FAILING WAS A BIG HEADLINE WITH THE OUTAGES, ALTHOUGH IT LOOKED LIKE EVERYTHING FAILED IN TEXAS. HOW COME WIND TURBINES WORK IN NEW YORK BUT DID NOT IN TEXAS?
“Basically, their wind turbines are designed for warmer weather. With wind turbines, there’s a lot of things you can do for different climates. Some of it’s simple. Like they have different coatings on the blades. You could have an anti-ice coating just like they would spray the wings of an aircraft. They have similar coatings that you can put on wind turbines that make it harder for things like snow or ice to stick.
“If you’re in Texas, that doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily worth the money to put that on. They also have the ability now with wind turbines to put heating elements into the blades themselves, so when they make the blades there’s actually embedded heating elements that you can use or in some cases they pipe warm air through the blades. That will melt any snow or ice that forms on the blade”
“All these things cost extra. If you’re putting a wind turbine in Rochester, or in Norway, you might see that as a worthwhile investment, but you could see why in Texas the wind developers wouldn’t necessarily make those investments in wind turbines themselves.”
IS THERE ANY GOVERNMENT REGULATION THAT SAYS YOU HAVE TO? OR IS THAT JUST ON THE INSTALLER?
“In most states, there wouldn’t be regulation necessarily, the place where that would probably become required, would probably be in a contract. If you’re selling your wind power to some sort of municipal utility, you’re selling wind power to the City of Austin, Texas, for example, there might be requirements about reliability mixed into the contract. The (off taker) buyer of the power might say ‘Look, we want you to have these particular technologies installed in your power plant to help us know that the power will be delivered when we need it the most’.”
“The problem in Texas is that most people in Texas didn’t think about or plan for this type of contingency, so those types of requirements were not put into the contracts. “
DO YOU THINK THAT’S GOING TO CHANGE?
“Hah, I do think that will change. I think we’re looking at a world where a lot of people are going to flip open their contracts to the back part, to the fine print that they didn’t pay much attention to in the first place, and discover that they want to change the terms of the contract going forward and require more reliability. Even the generators themselves had a huge financial motivation to do that because of the high prices during this period. If you don’t deliver power, then usually, you’re obligated to pay for power from the open market, and when power prices spike, that means that you as the generator, probably lost a huge amount of money if you weren’t able to generate power but you were supposed to.”
THAT COST GOES DOWN TO THE END USER, RIGHT?
“Yes, right. In the end, people have to pay. Someone has to pay. All the money that goes into the electricity system originates with the buyers of electricity, so that’s businesses, but it’s also homeowners. Usually in many places, there’s a buffer to the prices that homeowners pay. We pay relatively constant rates, and if the price of electricity goes up a large amount, for example what happened in Texas, that would mean that the next year, our electricity rates would go up a bit in order to compensate, but in this situation, because of the way some of the electric retailers work in Texas, there were homeowners that were stuck paying bills of thousands of dollars just for a few days of electricity.”
I SAW TEXAS POLITICIANS DEMANDING THAT ELECTRICITY GENERATORS PREPARE FOR ANOTHER COLD SNAP, BUT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS, IT MIGHT NOT BE GOVERNMENT REGULATION THAT DRIVES IT, BUT THE PRIVATE SECTOR SAYING WE WANT YOU TO CONTINUE TO BUY OUR ENERGY, SO WE’RE GOING TO MAKE IT MORE RELIABLE?
“It’s possible. We could say, the competitive market will figure this out, contract holders will demand this of the generators, or the generators will want to do it on their own. But, I don’t think it’s particularly problematic for the government to step in and say ‘electricity is very important, a reliable electricity supply is important for the economy and society as a whole, and put in place a few smaller regulations that would guarantee electricity supply in somewhat unlikely events like what we saw in Texas.
COULD ANYTHING EVER HAPPEN LIKE THAT IN NEW YORK STATE?
“Unfortunately, things like that can happen anywhere. They probably won’t happen. The trouble with reliability in any kind of system, electricity system in particular, you can always have more reliability, but you can never have complete reliability. So it’s always a question of trade off. This type of thing is less likely to happen in places like Upstate New York, because we’re relatively well weatherized for winter weather. So outages are less likely to happen.
The outages in Texas happened because everything from the natural gas distribution system to the power plants themselves were designed to be optimized for warm weather, which is normally the challenge in Texas. In a place like Upstate New York, we’re designed to be robust in winter conditions. We might have a higher probability of outages in the summer when potentially, it’s less impactful.
“You can always have more reliability, buy you can never have complete reliability”
“We also tend to have systems that are designed to more stringent requirements due to the way that New York State grid operates. Texas is more of an open, free market, and lets buyers and sellers of power work out the conditions under which the generation will operate whereas New York has a bit more regulation from above that tells generators what designs and policies they have to follow. “
SOME SCIENCE SAYS THAT CLIMATE CHANGE COULD BRING MORE OF THESE COLD SNAPS. CAN WE BE HOPEFUL THAT THIS INFRASTRUCTURE WILL IMPROVE TO PREVENT ANOTHER EVENT LIKE THIS?
“We can be hopeful, but climate change makes the whole thing challenging. Everything from the way our houses are designed to power plants are mostly designed based on historical weather conditions. What has the weather been like over the last hundred years, what have been the extremes of our weather in the last hundred year? The tricky thing with climate change is that we’re mostly not sure of exactly what will happen. The only thing we can be sure about is that it will be different.
“We have to plan for weather that we’re not entirely sure about thus far.”
ANY LAST TAKEAWAYS?
“I think this Texas outage has been an interesting wake up call for those planning for strange weather events in electricity systems. We had similar things happen in California over the summer due to hot weather. I think it puts a fine point on how important electricity supply is to society. It’s the type of thing that we don’t really think about much until it’s gone and then we realize how critical it was. It shows how important reliability is for all of our needs.