As utility companies and state and federal authorities investigate how and why millions of Texans were left without power during brutal cold and snow last week, Arkansas power experts are looking for lessons in the debacle, and explaining how Arkansas and other states largely avoided Texas’ fate.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the operator of the state’s uniquely independent power grid, required rolling blackouts starting Feb. 14 when demand spiked precisely as record cold and snowstorms were knocking out generation units.
Entergy Arkansas and Arkansas’ electric cooperatives were forced into rolling outages last week as well, but only short ones, nothing close to the magnitude of Texas’ life-threatening disruptions. Rob Roedel, spokesman for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. of Little Rock, explained some important differences about how the two states allot electric power.
“Arkansas is served by two Regional Transmission Organizations,” or RTOs, “Southwest Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator,” MISO. “Both have a very diverse mix of power generation that provides incredible flexibility to our state. Texas is served by ERCOT only, and while they can import power from other RTOs, given the expanse of the winter system the surrounding RTOs had little power to export.”
When ERCOT’s generation failed, he said, “they were forced to significantly cut load.”
At one point, four million Texans were without power, and the grid crisis drew scrutiny Tuesday from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which announced that it’s investigating whether market violations occurred in natural gas or electricity transactions. Earlier, FERC had revealed that it’s teaming with the North American Electric Reliability Corp., or NERC, to examine the Texas outages and lesser ones in the SPP and MISO systems.
Entergy Arkansas executive Kurt Castleberry took note of the ERCOT inquiry on Tuesday, predicting “we will all know more in the near future,” but he gave general impressions on why utilities in Arkansas fared better than their counterparts in Texas.
“Certainly there were challenges here because it was indeed an unprecedented cold weather occurrence,” said Castleberry, director of resource planning and market operations for investor-owned Entergy Arkansas, the state’s largest power company. “I think the long-term planning processes used by Entergy and other MISO member utilities contributed to mitigating the negative impact on our customers. Those planning processes consider the amount, technology and fuel source for generation as well as the transmission capacity and configuration needed to maintain reliability. I think long-term planning helped prepare us for the cold-weather event last week.”
The Role of the Wind
Since the outages, a debate on whether an overreliance on wind power had much to do with the blackouts has raged, but investigators are looking beyond the fuel mix equation. They’re also concerned about changes in operations and planning that were made, or weren’t made, after a similar crisis in extreme cold a decade ago.
It’s simply not true that frozen wind turbines caused the recent blackouts, but politicians like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas have made that idea a talking point. Whether a modern reliance on wind power has left the grid’s reliability at risk in extreme weather, however, is a quite valid question. Arkansas Electric Cooperatives CEO Buddy Hasten said as much at a Rotary Zoom discussion last week at the height of the crunch.
The crisis underlined the need for a mix of generating sources, including coal, gas and renewable energy like wind and solar, Hasten said.
“Greener energy has some intermittency problems. The real question staring everybody in the face this morning is how to keep the system reliable 24 hours a day,” Hasten said.
Roedel, following his boss’s reliability argument, said Arkansas’ power generation facilities are “in a zone that has the potential for very cold winter conditions and is generally well prepared” for extremes.
“Being in two RTOs, having a robust transmission grid, allowed the system to move power where it was needed, even across state lines,” Roedel said. The RTOs, reliable generation and the ability to get members and industrial partners to conserve “combined to help us weather one heck of a storm.”
Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of system operations, said the rolling blackouts were issued to prevent an imminent grid failure across Texas. On Feb. 17, he said that more megawatts of thermally-generated power than wind power were offline during the crisis. Thermal generation includes coal and natural-gas-fired electricity, as well as nuclear power. The majority of Texas’ thermal generation is from natural gas, and ERCOT cited frozen gas wells and pipelines, as well as a nuclear reactor outage on Feb. 15, as factors.
ERCOT officials said a lack of winterization at generation sites that usually don’t require it contributed to the grid collapse. More northern wind farms invest in more de-icing, and gas facilities are less insulated in warmer states, which raises efficiency and cuts overheating in summer, but also adds to winter vulnerability.
The FERC is also looking into how ERCOT’s vaunted independence, it’s “go-it-alone” philosophy, played into the blackout emergency.
Derek Wingfield, supervisor of corporate communications for SPP, said that a city, region or utility “acting on their own might be able to supply power to all of their customers most of the time, and often produce more electricity than is needed.”
However, “when demand suddenly rises due to extreme cold or heat, or if a power plant can’t produce energy at full capacity, it helps to have others to rely on.”
Wingfield said that while homes, farms and businesses in SPP’s region experienced temporary outages, the system’s ability to draw on power produced anywhere in its 14-state region gave it the ability to “minimize the impacts to the 17.5 million people our member utilities serve.”
Reliability is a foremost priority for SPP, he said. “It’s why this storm marks the first time in SPP’s 80-year history we’ve directed member utilities to use controlled interruptions of service: It’s always our last resort to prevent uncontrolled and widespread outages.”
The benefits of reciprocity extend beyond extreme events, Wingfield said.
SPP membership “means if the local utility that serves your home ever experiences a loss of generating capacity, it can purchase excess power from other members to keep your lights on,” Wingfield said. “On the other hand, when it’s producing more power than it needs to serve its own customers, it can sell that power to others to offset its own costs, savings that in turn lower your rates.”
Randy Eminger of Bella Vista, director of the pro-coal Energy Policy Network, said that last week’s grid crisis should at least require revisiting what he sees as a headlong rush toward wind generation and other “intermittent” generation sources. Even if a loss of wind power didn’t precipitate the outages, he argues wind’s larger share of overall capacity at the expense of coal left grid managers with fewer options in their desperation.
“In 2018 alone, utilities in Texas closed some 5,200 MW of coal plants and several natural gas plants,” Eminger said. “You might think that would be fine with the 23,000 MW of wind in place. The problem is, renewable generation, wind and solar, is intermittent, simply meaning they cannot be counted on to generate electricity on demand.” While SPP and MISO rely on coal and gas generation for 69% and 84% of their capacity, respectively, plans for new generation tilt heavily to renewable sources, Eminger said.
“A staggering 91% of the new electric generation planned in SPP will be wind and solar," Eminger said. "MISO follows close behind with 88% of new generation being renewable sources. ... Arkansas should not follow Texas by closing coal and natural gas plants and replacing them with intermittent sources.”