Not Your Texas Dairy Queen Blizzard: Explaining The Texas Energy Breakdown of 2021

The Real Reason Texas Had Power Failure and a Failure of Power

First, Excuse My Short Departure

Welp, my time away was not intentional. By Sunday the week turned to weathering the Texas snow storm of 2021!

What you are seeing is the snow outside our home. Texans are never prepared for this kind of weather for the most part. It shuts everything down, normally, only for a day or two. But a few days turned into a bloody week; a frozen hell for millions without power or water. A travesty in itself that also presented a larger political upheaval here in Texas which I will cover.

First things first, my family and I were perfectly fine the whole time. We were not the norm as most went without power or water for six day if not longer. In San Antonio alone, large parts of the city remain under a boil notice. Thankful to God we were able to open our home to anyone in need of a warm bed, clean water, a hot shower, and some amazing grub.

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ERCOT This Is Texas, Over

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) for good and for bad was caught in the storm as Texas power outages and brownouts ransacked the entire state infrastructure. On the outset, I knew this was the failure of an aging Texas infrastructure and its ill preparation for storms along with other disasters and unprecedented events. Yet, politics, like everything else in America today, took control of the wheel driving society off of a cliff.

Frozen wind turbines were quickly blamed for the catastrophe. And, going green and sustainable was to blame at large. Solar and wind were castrated as sources of Texas demise.

Then came the backlash, no, it was oil and gas companies to blame. Their evil, inconsistent ways of unpreparedness caused this plight.

Uproar divided by radicalized political lines both turned ERCOT as “the enemy” while screams of anti-environmentalism and anti-fossil fuels literally flamed the fires of angst. ERCOT became an easy figure to villainize from a populist perspective as five of its board members live out-of-state.

Blame! Shame!! Judge!!! That has been the general outpour of our disillusioned society for the last four years. Now is the time to speak truth to the matter at hand without all of the emotional nonsense.

Human Error, Technological Breakdown, and Weather

There is a whole industry within industries devoted to risk assessments and error. Within the energy and resource markets, one will find Environmental, Health, Safety, and Sustainability (EHS&S) markers throughout industries of mining, oil & gas, alternate energy, etc. Great lengths are gone to analyze systems of thought, production, information, and knowledge in our age of information and technology. Hence organizations such as NOPSEMA or National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority; NOPSEMA provides detailed explanations concerning terms like human error:

Human Error is commonly defined as a failure of a planned action to achieve a desired outcome. Performance shaping factors (PSFs) exist at individual, job, and organisational levels, and when poorly managed can increase the likelihood of an error occurring in the workplace. When errors occur in hazardous environments, there is a greater potential for things to go wrong. By understanding human error, responsible parties can plan for likely error scenarios, and implement barriers to prevent or mitigate the occurrence of potential errors.

Errors result from a variety of influences, but the underlying mental processes that lead to error are consistent, allowing for the development of a human error typology. An understanding of the different error types is critical for the development of effective error prevention and mitigation tools and strategies.  A variety of these tools and strategies must be implemented to target the full range of error types if they are to be effective.

Errors can occur in both the planning and execution stages of a task. Plans can be adequate or inadequate, and actions (behaviour) can be intentional or unintentional. If a plan is adequate, and the intentional action follows that plan, then the desired outcome will be achieved. If a plan is adequate, but an unintentional action does not follow the plan, then the desired outcome will not be achieved. Similarly, if a plan is inadequate, and an intentional action follows the plan, the desired outcome will again not be achieved. These error points are demonstrated in the figure below and explained in the example that follows.

Human error is one of the most common and frequent causes of workplace disaster across numerous industries. In the area of manufacturing, a single study found “23 percent of all unplanned downtime in manufacturing is the result of human error.” Concerning cybersecurity, in 2014 IBM Cybersecurity Index study, the company found that 95% of incidents were human related:

What is fascinating—and disheartening—is that over 95 percent of all incidents investigated recognize “human error” as a contributing factor. The most commonly recorded form of human errors include system misconfiguration, poor patch management, use of default user names and passwords or easy-to-guess passwords, lost laptops or mobile devices, and disclosure of regulated information via use of an incorrect email address. The most prevalent contributing human error? “Double clicking” on an infected attachment or unsafe URL.

According to a report by the United States Department of Transportation, “Human error is a major source of risk in existing offshore systems. The International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Coast Guard have independently estimated that human error is the direct cause of 80% of ship accidents and incidents (p. 2).”

Directly related to Texas Energy, take note of the next following charts from the United States Department of Energy:

Human error/faulty equipment is one the largest factors in the breakdown of a grid system in Texas. The study also reports that “[t]he leading cause of electric outages in Texas during 2008 to 2013 was Weather/Falling Trees.”

Put into perspective the storm that lasted from February 14 to February 19 before clearing up. Texas is and remains mostly unprepared for snow across the State minus cities such as Lubbock which commonly receive snowfall each year. Nonetheless, Texas was unprepared for the weather along with human error, tech malfunction, and an aging grid that compromises the nation at large.

Texas is not alone in these problems and its important to highlight the fact that the United State infrastructure including energy grids, power plants, and power stations have surpassed their life expectancy of fifty-years entering anywhere between seventy to sixty years of age as of 2020 and onward:

With more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines across the three interconnected electric transmission grids – the Eastern Interconnection, Western Interconnection, and Texas Interconnection – the lower 48 states’ power grid is at full capacity, with many lines operating well beyond their design. The resulting congestion raises concerns with distribution, reliability, and cost of service, producing constraints for delivering power from remote generation sites, specifically from renewable sources, to consumers. Often a single line cannot be taken out of service to perform maintenance as it will overload other interconnected lines in operation.

Take another look at Texas energy infrastructure from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA):

From the 2018 report although updated as of March 19, 2020 quote:

  • Texas is the top U.S. producer of both crude oil and natural gas. In 2019, the state accounted for 41% of the nation's crude oil production and 25% of its marketed natural gas production.

  • As of January 2019, the 30 petroleum refineries in Texas were able to process about 5.8 million barrels of crude oil per day and accounted for 31% of the nation's refining capacity.

  • Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation and produced about 28% of all the U.S. wind-powered electricity in 2019. Texas wind turbines have produced more electricity than both of the state's nuclear power plants since 2014. 

  • Texas produces more electricity than any other state, generating almost twice as much as Florida, the second-highest electricity-producing state.

  • Texas is the largest energy-producing and energy-consuming state in the nation. The industrial sector, including its refineries and petrochemical plants, accounts for half of the energy consumed in the state.

End quote.

Texas is an energy stronghold, yet it faced multiple failures in leadership, prevention, preparedness, and recovery. As a comparison in consumption and output here is California:

  • California was the seventh-largest producer of crude oil among the 50 states in 2019, and, as of January 2020, it ranked third in oil refining capacity. Foreign suppliers, led by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Ecuador, and Colombia, provided more than half of the crude oil refined in California in 2019.

  • California is the largest consumer of both jet fuel and motor gasoline among the 50 states and accounted for 17% of the nation’s jet fuel consumption and 11% of motor gasoline consumption in 2019. The state is the second-largest consumer of all petroleum products combined, accounting for 10% of the U.S. total.

  • In 2018, California's energy consumption was second-highest among the states, but its per capita energy consumption was the fourth-lowest due in part to its mild climate and its energy efficiency programs.

  • In 2019, California was the nation’s top producer of electricity from solar, geothermal, and biomass energy, and the state was second in the nation in conventional hydroelectric power generation.

  • In 2019, California was the fourth-largest electricity producer in the nation, but the state was also the nation’s largest importer of electricity and received about 28% of its electricity supply from generating facilities outside of California, including imports from Mexico.

Reason.com grasped the situation better than most:

The state was not prepared for record cold temperatures stretching across all 254 Texas counties. This generated summer levels of electric demand, and it also caused significant amounts of generation to become unusable. Because really cold temperatures are rare in Texas, many plants contain components that are not protected from the elements. This is true for generators of all fuel types, from wind to nuclear. In addition, Texas typically relies heavily on natural gas to meet its peak electric demand, as natural gas plants are easier to ramp up or down on short notice. During the summer that's not a problem. In the winter, though, gas is also used for heating, and many gas plants did not have firm contracts to deliver fuel and had trouble buying it on the open market. Finally, the winter is a time when some plants shut down for scheduled maintenance.

The result: In the early morning hours of February 15, the state's grid operator—the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT—found itself facing a supply shortfall with more than a third of the grid's thermal generation capacity (natural gas, coal, and nuclear) unusable. To prevent total system failure, ERCOT ordered utilities to curtail service, plunging millions of homes into darkness and cold.

Missing from reports are the drastic drawback of Texas energy superiority when it fails along with an aging national grid system desperately in need of repair. Home Serve Utility reports that “[s]ome pipelines date back to the 1880s, with most natural gas pipelines being installed prior to 1980. Pipeline breaks and refinery outages cause supply disruptions, which, in turn, lead to higher prices. Reported spills have increased from 573 in 2012 to 715 in 2015.” Furthermore, according to Christine Oumansour, a Partner in Oliver Wyman’s Energy and Operations practices, she writes concerning the outdated grid systems across the United States:

The industry needs to do more than replace what’s there, and the price tag for the work will be sizable. Because of the rapidly increasing supply of renewable power and expectations for new demand from electrification, the grid will need to change, becoming more decentralized while supplying substantially more power.

Over the next three decades, we estimate that upward of a hundred and forty thousand miles of transmission lines will come due for replacement. To simply upgrade this infrastructure and maintain the status quo would require an investment of more than seven hundred billion dollars, by our calculations.

If we were to also take into account the increase in demand anticipated from adoption of electric vehicles – a potential load growth of more than forty-five percent, according to our research – the United States could be looking at a required capital investment of more than one trillion dollars by 2050 to create a transmission system capable of dealing with the nation’s future needs. To achieve these numbers, it will require support from the investment community, ratepayers, and public utilities commissions.

Our national grid and supplies must undergo a fundamental shift or we risk losing more than heat. The nation has aged without consideration of means to rejuvenate its muster as a global power in the 21st century. An all of the above approach is necessary to the security and sovereignty of the United States. America must continue to invest in renewable energy sources, discover new methods of energy transmission and storage, uncover resources that can be developed into energy production, build energy reduction methods, and imagine a future that is clean, green, and sustainable for mankind.

The Center for Transportation Research at The University of Texas at Austin along with the support of the Texas Department of Transportation produced an extensive report in 2011 titled, Impacts of Energy Developments on the Texas Transportation System or Texas Energy Sector: Past and Future. A fairly sizable report, the concluding remarks on page 34 of the physical report are worth reiterating:

Texas’s increasingly outdated transmission technology has been struggling to supply increased electricity demand in the state. Inadequate transmission technology has also been an important limitation to the expansion of renewable energy sources—specifically wind. This chapter provided information about the current state of Texas’s electricity transmission infrastructure, the plans for expanding Texas’s transmission infrastructure to serve the CREZs, and finally the steps that ERCOT is taking to invest in smart and high efficiency technologies to increase the capacity of Texas’s electricity grid.

Granted, Texas does have a plan. ERCOT and company are well on their way of creating a smart energy system that creates a seamless system of energy and information from physical generation to the consumer but it will take time. As disturbing as it may sound, Texas is better off than most of the entire country, but even the “Great State” has its flaws and errors. This is to be expected.

Stop the Politics Already

Our Texas blizzard was neither harmed nor halted by Ted "Cancun" Cruz poor decision to leave for vacation or Saint Beto O'Rourke giving water and food. These men are politicians who make mistakes and sometimes get things right in a single moment.

As for the talk over President Biden’s preventing the help of Texas by restricting the state to “green standards” is completely false as “ERCOT asked the government to allow power plants to exceed federal emissions capswhich can be read in the actual emergency order on page 2 of the report:

ERCOT requests that the Secretary issue an order immediately, effective February 14, 2021 through February 19, 2021, authorizing “the provision of additional energy from all generation units subject to emissions or other permit limits” in the ERCOT region. The generating units (Specified Resources) that this Order pertains to are listed on the Order 202-21-1 Resources List, as described below.

Given the emergency nature of the expected load stress, the responsibility of ERCOT to ensure maximum reliability on its system, and the ability of ERCOT to identify and dispatch generation necessary to meet the additional load, I have determined that additional dispatch of the Specified Resources is necessary to best meet the emergency and serve the public interest for purposes of FPA section 202(c). Because the additional generation may result in a conflict with environmental standards and requirements, I am authorizing only the necessary additional generation, with reporting requirements as described below.

FPA section 202(c)(2) requires the Secretary of Energy to ensure that any 202(c) order that may result in a conflict with a requirement of any environmental law be limited to the “hours necessary to meet the emergency and serve the public interest, and, to the maximum extent practicable,” be consistent with any applicable environmental law and minimize any adverse environmental impacts. ERCOT anticipates that this Order may result in exceedance of emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon monoxide emissions, as well as wastewater release limits. To minimize adverse environmental impacts, this Order limits operation of dispatched units to the times and within the parameters determined by ERCOT for reliability purposes.

Based on my determination of an emergency set forth above, I hereby order:

A. From February 14, to February 19, 2021, in the event that ERCOT determines that generation from the Specified Resources is necessary to meet the electricity demand that ERCOT anticipates in Texas during this event, I direct ERCOT to dispatch such unit or units and to order their operation only as needed to maintain the reliability of the power grid in the ERCOT region when the demand on the ERCOT system exceeds expected energy and reserve requirements. Specified Resources are those natural gas, coal, or distillate fuel oil generating units set forth on the Order 202-21-1 Resource List, subject to updates directed here and as described in paragraph D, which the Department shall post on www.energy.gov. ERCOT is directed to update Exhibit A to its Application with the anticipated category of environmental impact (i.e. sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, carbon monoxide emissions, wastewater release, other air pollutants) by 21:00 Central Standard Time on February 15, 2021.

Essentially, do what you need to do to save the state. Then, return back to federal standards after an appointed time.

Texas was wise to formulate an independent grid system as each state and region should attempt, but the nation as a whole must face the facts and the facts are that the system is aged and desperately in need of repair. The facts are that human error and technological malfunction will continue to occur. And the facts are that climate change, limited resources, and environmental factors (such as the Texas Blizzard of 2021) well outside the boundaries of common human control are going to continue to be common occurrences. The State of Texas and the United States of America must rebuild, restructure, and recreate a world that is cleaner, safer, and prepared even for the unprepared events of life; to plan for the errors that humans are most likely going to cause and the malfunctions that few want to consider until its far too late.

To err is to be human and I will add to procrastinate is also to be human. Therefore, America must build in preparation for the two.