Texas Electricity Blackouts Enabled by Feedback Loops; Reliance on Competition

Many days after the winter storm hit Texas, outages are still continuing in parts of Texas. We don't have all the answers yet, but let me tell you what I have pieced together about what has happened. One of the issues is direct and indirect feedbacks, as outlined in the graphic below, and described further in this post.

Figure 1. Cold weather affected both natural gas supply and electricity. In addition, a shortage of natural gas interrupted electricity supply, and electricity outages reduced natural gas availability.

Another issue is electricity deregulation in Texas. The competitive marketplace produces a situation not all that different from the situation in which BP operated that led to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Under Texas' structure, there are many entities, each concerned primarily with its own bottom line. In this environment, cost cutting in the name of profitability is rewarded, but can lead to power outages. Integration with the many other units involved in electricity generation, while possible in theory, is extremely difficult in practice in times of market stress. The competitive marketplace provides price integration, but leads to a greater chance of cascading failure, since each company can be expected to look out for itself, leaving regulators with an expanded role in making certain that the system as a whole functions properly.

We are now considering adding more wind to the electric grid, as well as adding natural gas and electric vehicles. These will all have the effect of making the organization more complex. Each entity will be working to optimize its own profitability, with little focus on the overall success of the system. The failure of the Texas grid system in cold weather should act as a caution to those who expect that the integration of even more types of providers into the natural gas/electricity system can be done with few problems.

Feedback Loop Issues

What happened in Texas was that two coal fired power plants tripped offline, related to freezing water pipes, and this started a whole cascade of other effects. In the next sections, I describe this situation, and the feedbacks, in more detail.

Cold Affected Electricity Supplies

Cold weather had direct impacts on electricity production. In the Globe Newswire, we read that frozen pipes in two inadequately weatherized coal-fired power plants were the immediate cause of the crisis. Coal fired power plants tend to be large. Taking two of them off-line simultaneously can be disruptive in and of itself.

There were other weather-related issues. According to the Star-Telegram,

Trip Doggett, president and CEO of ERCOT, said there was no one reason that power failed Wednesday at 50 electrical generating plants. Instead, he said, there were a variety of reasons and no pattern emerged either geographically or by provider. Frozen pipes, valves and monitoring systems were just some of the reasons, he said.

Cold Affected Natural Gas Supplies

This happened in three different ways:

1. Newly pumped natural gas supplies lower

Cold weather affected the amount of natural gas extracted. Platts reports:

US production for Thursday' gas day would be about 57.5 Bcf, Bentek said, down from more than 62 Bcf a week ago -- before the emergence of the cold front that left a large swath of the US with snow on the ground.

"There's a pretty sizeable amount. The cold has shown a large effect in more than just Texas. We are seeing freeze-offs or lower production in the Rockies, the Anadarko [field] in Texas and Oklahoma, East Texas and the Texas Gulf Coast," senior Bentek analyst Matt Marshall said.

Freeze-offs occur when low temperatures crystallize the small amounts of water produced with natural gas, forcing blockages at the wellhead, and are most common in extreme and prolonged cold snaps.

Platts also says, "Much of the production loss was centered around Texas, where more than 2 Bcf was lost, according to Bentek data."

2. Stored natural gas supplies didn't give enough "boost"

Normally, natural gas supplies come from a combination of natural gas that is just now being stored, plus natural gas that has been set aside in storage during the time of year when demand was low. But the amount that is available from storage hasn't been enough, since many states are now reporting low supply.

There are really two different functions that natural gas from storage can provide. It can  (1) add to total supply, as long as there is natural gas in storage and it can  (2) supplement daily needed amounts. It is clear that storage is not adequate for supplementing daily needed amounts, even though the caverns may appear to have plenty left in them. This is an issue of the "size of the tap" versus the "size of the tank". It doesn't matter if a natural gas tank is full, if users can't get much out on a daily basis.

Natural gas storage is expensive, and is normally only created where naturally occurring caverns can be adapted for this use. No one would seem to have economic incentive to create gas storage if it will only be needed very rarely, and of course, adding such storage would add to the overall cost of natural gas. I don't know the details of US natural gas storage. It may that to provide adequate short-term supplementation, one would need more, smaller storage locations, closer to where supplementation is needed.

3. Everybody was using the same natural gas

There are multiple users for natural gas:

  1. Homes heating with natural gas,
  2. Businesses heating and cooking with natural gas,
  3. Industrial users other than electricity users, who use electricity in their processes, and
  4. Electricity users.

Of course, all of the gas for these many types of users flows together through the same pipelines, until at the very end, when it goes to its individual destination. When it gets cold outside, at least three of the four users listed above are likely to have rising demand for natural gas: people heating their homes with natural gas need more gas for heat; businesses heating their establishments need more gas; and electric power plants need more gas.

One of the questions that comes up is whether the pipelines are of sufficient size to accommodate all of this demand simultaneously. Each new user plugs in, assuming that there will be enough. And there is, until it gets cold out. (We have been told that wind actually performed well during the initial day of the storm. If this had not been the case, the electricity shortfall would have been even worse.) It seems like adequacy of pipeline size should be something that is analyzed.

According to the Star-Telegram,

Fraser said that when several coal-fired electricity plants failed, providers turned to natural-gas-fired plants to fill the gap.

Except that didn't work because Atmos had curtailed its supply of natural gas to industrial customers, including natural-gas-fired power plants, he said. Atmos did exactly as its protocol called for, he said, to make sure that residential and commercial users had enough gas pressure.

"We didn't have enough gas pressure available to bring up the power plants," Fraser said. "In a high-volume usage, the first ones they cut off are the power plants."

This quirk in the system was unknown to Fraser and perhaps others in state government, probably because no winter storm had so taxed both the electricity grid and the natural gas supply.

So cutting off the electrical providers at the same time as other industrial users when there isn't enough to go around is a problem that needs to be looked at. The Northeast had a similar conflict between homeowners and electric power plants during cold weather in 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal. It made a change to permit electricity generators to be able to request more supply.

Short Natural Gas Supply Reduced Ability to Make Electricity

This is one of my arrows on the diagram at the top of the post. Pretty clearly, if natural gas pressure in pipelines is low,  gas-fired electricity cannot be brought up, and this is a problem.

Lack of Electricity Affected Natural Gas Supply

This is my arrow going the other direction. When there are electricity outages, then natural gas pipelines that use electricity to pressurize their gas lose this ability, tending to put even more electric power plants out of commission. According to the Wall Street Journal,

Some natural-gas pipelines were unable to move gas to power plants because they had lost electricity and "they didn't have a backup system to pressure the lines," said State Sen. Troy Fraser, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, who plans to hold hearings on the incident.

I wonder about the feasibility of retrofitting natural gas pipelines to have natural gas as a back-up to electricity for pressurizing their supplies. It would seem as though this option could more easily be added on new pipelines.

With arrows going both ways between natural gas supply and electricity supply, there is clearly a potential for escalation, through an unintended feedback loop.

Texas Deregulation of Utility System

Texas is one of the states that replaced the monopoly system of utilities with a system of competing sellers, under what is termed "restructuring". Quite a number of states tried this approach and abandoned it (shown in gold on Figure 2). Texas is one of the states (in green) that kept this approach. It is striking that Texas had problems during cold weather, and other states nearby without restructuring did not.

Figure 2. EIA Map of Electricity Restructuring by State, September 2010

While economists like the idea of restructuring, physicists have major doubts about it. Eric Lerner, in The Industrial Physicist, says:

Experts widely agree that such failures of the power-transmission system [blackouts] are a nearly unavoidable product of a collision between the physics of the system and the economic rules that now regulate it. To avoid future incidents, the nation must either physically transform the system to accommodate the new rules, or change the rules to better mesh with the power grid’s physical behavior.

Lerner also writes,

The vast system of electricity generation, transmission, and distribution that covers the United States and Canada is essentially a single machine—by many measures, the world’s biggest machine.

The problem is that it is very difficult to keeping all the parts of this huge electrical machine working together properly under deregulation. When the system was originally designed, there were many vertically integrated electric utilities, with only a small amount of interconnection, each managing its own piece of the "machine".

But now we have stresses in many different directions. We are trying to trade electricity long-distance, over transmission lines that were not really designed for this purpose. We are gradually bringing the electrical system closer to other systems--the natural gas system, the system for charging electric vehicles, and the system of delivering natural gas to vehicles, for example, so that these systems become interconnected with the huge electrical machine as well. They need to function together as a unit, or there will be the possibility of cascading failures. We have just seen how there can be feedbacks between the electrical and natural gas systems, and there no doubt will be feedbacks with other systems, as they are grow and become more integrated with the electrical system.

One of the stresses under deregulation is the fact that instead of vertically integrated utilities, we now have a much larger number of independent entities, each looking out for its own profitability, but not having a great deal of concern about making the system as a whole work together well. The economic incentive for each of these units is to cut costs as much as possible. For example, units have an economic incentive to cut corners on details like making certain that the unit can operate in any kind of weather. Units cannot be expected to have much concern about how their action contributes to the smooth operation of the whole. They certainly will not spend much time looking for feedback loops among different systems, such as the ones discussed above.

Without vertically integrated utilities with a concern for keeping everything going as smoothly as possible, and rates that allow the companies to spend as much as needed on preventive maintenance, the regulator suddenly has a much greater role. The regulator must anticipate everything that can go wrong among the many different types of entities, and set up regulations to prevent such failures. At some point, this task becomes impossibly difficult.

Looking ahead

Where does this all lead? It seems to me that the United States is headed for more electrical blackouts, as we try to press our grid system to do more and more (for example, charge autos at night) and add additional unconnected parts (such as wind turbines) to the system. States that use a competitive pricing approach, such as Texas and the other states in green on Figure 2, are especially at risk because of the financial incentives of individual units to cut corners, and the lack of overall co-ordination, except through regulators. The limits under the laws of physics can be expected to become more and more apparent.

Not only are we likely to have more electricity outages in the future, but the outages are likely to spill over into other systems as well. Natural gas pipelines affected by electricity outages will stop pumping, if they are electrically operated, as they were in Texas. Pipelines carrying gasoline and diesel to their destinations will also stop pumping, if they are located in blackout areas. If gasoline stations are affected by blackouts, their electrical pumps will not work, so customers will not be able to buy gasoline and diesel, even if the service station's tanks are full.

There is no easy fix for the problem. We clearly need to look into the feedbacks that are causing our current outages, but doing this is not likely to solve our long-term problem, since that is "fighting the last war". We also need to be looking for potential feedback loops that are likely to cause different problems in the future.

Eliminating competitive pricing in Texas and other states with the system would seem to be helpful in preventing future blackouts. Eliminating competitive pricing may make integration of wind and solar into the overall electrical system more difficult, but if we want to have a system without major blackouts, we will need to make the health of the overall system a priority. This will likely mean going back to more of a regulated utility model, to the extent this is practical. It may also mean scaling back plans to add wind, solar, electric vehicles, and natural gas vehicles to the system, so that only the amount that the system can readily accommodate is added, given local constraints such as the size of natural gas pipelines and the amount of natural gas storage capacity available for short-term supplementation.

We also need to be doing more real-life testing, so we can figure out what feedback loops are likely to be in an integrated system. We really don't know how the system will work when it starts reaching its limits. For example, we have built a huge number of "peak demand" natural gas electrical generating units, but I doubt that anyone has really tested running them simultaneously, especially when the weather is very warm, which is one time when we are likely to need them.

We recently have experienced a period of over fifty years when the electrical grid was "up" most of the time, and almost everyone has come to take its existence for granted. I think the time has come for a much more conscious awareness of our electrical system's limits; we need to start making decisions with its integrity as a first priority. The Texas power outage fiasco has not turned into the equivalent of BP's oil spill, but if we continue down the path we are headed, we could easily find ourselves with electrical outage problems much worse than the oil spill.

See also: Will the US Electric Grid be Our Undoing?

Average Retail Price of Electricity TX LA

Originally posted on Our Finite World.

Excellent and interesting article.

My takeaway points with comments and a question.

1. This was a freak accident (the kicking offline of 2 coal-fired plants during high demand) caused by human error, namely freezing water pipes.

2. Hopefully, the memo has already gone out to send someone to Home Depot and buy however much pipe insulation and aluminum tape and insulate the pipe(s) so this won't happen again for 10 to 30 years, or at least until the insulation falls off and in again neglected.

3. Good luck, nearly equal to the bad, made this a windy cold event, so Texas windmills helped to mitigate the problem somewhat.

4. As far as regulation, you were too optimistic with "Without vertically integrated utilities with a concern for keeping everything going as smoothly as possible, and rates that allow the companies to spend as much as needed on preventive maintenance..."
Actually, in today's business environment. It wouldn't matter how much companies charged, there will be some (many?) companies that still won't spend much on maintenance. One big lesson from the NE Big Blackout was that no one required companies--some of them foreign--to spend much on maintenance. So yes, regulation is key, but the regulators will have to be consummate--not likely--but also well-equipped with data, programs and protocols.

5. Some of this is endemic, and brown/rolling/black outages cannot be entirely eliminated.

My question is this: Since at any given time, the amount of heat and electricity generated must be greater than what is being used (transmission losses, inability to predict the weather, everything), how has that excess trended over the years as energy has become more expensive? Are economics and efficiency driving a us to lower surplus, i.e., margin of error? (I have no idea where such a chart exists.)

Finally, just a note. in a swath from Houston to LA, there exists an automatic, in-step mechanism for keeping up with peak demand: solar energy. On a peak basis (4 to 5X base), it is already competitive and the hotter it gets the better it works, especially thermal solar electric.

Again, great article,

That bit surprised me as well. They don't heat-trace (thermostatically controlled electric heat strips that run along piping to prevent just such a freeze) in Texas? Refineries here in New Orleans heat-trace everything and it very rarely gets below freezing here, much less cold enough to gel crude hydrocarbons.

I would have to say this is a product of Texas's de-regulation. Louisiana has been hit with similar weather, albeit not as bad as gets in the panhandle, and has no such grid outages. And we export electricity to Texas!

On a peak basis (4 to 5X base), it is already competitive and the hotter it gets the better it works, especially thermal solar electric.

For the record solar thermal doesn't require high external air temps, all it needs is clear skies and a good collector.

5. Some of this is endemic, and brown/rolling/black outages cannot be entirely eliminated.

LOL! It would be very ironic indeed if fossil fuel based energy production became less reliable and more intermittent than the much maligned alternative energy systems. Future of fossil fuels: no longer cost effective, unreliable, and highly polluting.

Not to mention, deadly! http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/02/10/pennsylvania.explosion/index.html?hpt=T1

For the record solar thermal doesn't require high external air temps, all it needs is clear skies and a good collector.

And solar PV actually prefer cold temperatures to warm temperatures. High temperatures raise the internal resistance of the cells reducing power output.

Cold, clear and windy (the wind helps keep the panels cool) conditions are best for solar. Having snow on the ground can help reflect a bit more light onto panels.

High temperatures raise the internal resistance of the cells reducing power output.

No, high temps increase charge mobility.  The problem is that high temps decrease the forward voltage of the diodes and the voltage at the "knee" where power output is maximum.  Maximum voltage conditions for silicon cells are on very cold winter days with full sun (and reflected light off snow).

I have heard comments to the effect that the good result with wind was just for that particular time-period, and in general quite a bit of capacity ended up off line. For example:

High winds halt turbines

Summer nights with barely a breeze aren't the only times the wind farms take a break. The extreme bluster of the weather this week caused turbine trouble across the area.

According to the article, both high winds and cold caused turbines to shut down.

There might be articles with more details. At one point, Texas wind production was available on line IIRC, but I don't remember where.

Gail, wind turbines are

- Geographically diverse. Separate wind farms by dozens and hundreds of miles and geographic diversity is pronounced. And even within the same wind farm a leading WT may be shut down by high winds but a hill or wind shadow from another WT may keep another WT operating.

- Different manufacturers have different real world parameters, for both wind speeds and cold. GE and Vestas WTs may be operating all WTs as half of a nearby Gamesa wind farm is shut in.

- Different tower heights. The higher the tower, the better the wind, but a larger crane and more $$ are required. Two wind farms within sight of each other, on completely flat terrain, may have different heights of towers. Even if the same make and model of WT (rare) the shorter WTs could keep operating whilst the taller ones exceed design wind speeds.

If high winds shut down some of the WTS, the rest are generating at 100% of nameplate. The average is excellent :-)

Best Hopes for MORE wind,


I know somebody who works on one of the windparks in TX. At this particular windpark turbines were not operating because the temperature dropped below the minimum operating temperature.
Turbines come in different packages. These specific turbines did not have "winter packages" (different lubricants, heaters in certain areas etc.) because the the temperature was a) supposed to be a 50yr event b) winterized turbines are considerably more expensive than non-winterized ones and also require more ongoing maintanance. Given the weather assumption the decision was made during the design phase of the park to go with the non-winterized versions.
Therefore, the only way to keep the warrantee and serviceing contracts intact was turn turn them off.


Given the weather assumption the decision was made during the design phase of the park to go with the non-winterized versions.

Sounds like the same tradeoffs that were made with the fossil fuel plants, and NG wells. Now, that might well be a proper decision economically, but if so, then the public has to accept that they have traded off slightly lower costs for instability during extreme weather events. Otherwise, everybody and his brother begins blaming their favorite badguy (environmentalists, fossil fuel interests, or freemarket types).

+5, sanest response I've heard.

Everyone is independently making the same economic calculations on the presumption that they don't need to cover freak events.

Therefore, freak events simply don't get covered.

"We recently have experienced a period of over fifty years when the electrical grid was "up" most of the time, and almost everyone has come to take its existence for granted."

I think this statement that Gail uses to end this article is relevant to this discussion. The people that previously were not taking electrical grid uptime for granted under the 'old' , unregulated, vertically integrated systems were the ones who were responsible for ensuring reliability goals were met. It sounds like some of the 'savings' from deregulation were not real. At least some of the savings came from leaving out necessary functions such as reliability planning and preventative maintenance.

Under the old system, people would have been fired on the grounds of stupidity and gross negligence. Under deregulation, the only way to hold people to account is to use the court system and legislative committees to punish evil doers and change the rules. In effect, this result requires playing the blame game.

It also seems apparent that deregulation makes planning for reliability far more difficult.

Finally, deregulation seems to provide incentives to not plan for or build for extreme events.

It appears that it is fairly complex to implement a deregulated system that includes reliability planning and operations.

The savings from deregulation are far from proven. Texas is deregulated but Louisiana is not. Texas' electricity prices used to be comparable to Louisiana's, but now (after deregulation) they are higher. This doesn't "prove" deregulated prices are higher, but it doesn't support that they are lower, either. Texas prices started increasing above Louisiana's prices in 2002, the year the Open Market in Texas began. (A reader who was an energy legislative assistant pointed this out to me. I made the graph, using EIA data.)

The fuel mix of the two states has remained fairly similar over time. As of 2008, both used about 48% natural gas.

Both have low %'s from "Other Renewables"--Wind was not broken out separately in the EIA data. Louisiana averaged around 3% from "Other Renewables" for the entire time period from 1990 to 2008. Texas started at half a percent (0.5%) in 1990; reached 1% in 2002, 2% in 2006, and 2.5% in 2007. It finally surpassed Louisiana for the first time in 2008, with 4.4% from Other Renewables.

Not to mention massive fines that would end up being added to the consumers' bills.


There are times when I pull up the nation wind map. http://www.wunderground.com/US/Region/US/2xWindSpeed.html?MR=1

Like tonight the wind is calm all over the country so stop it with the "Geographically diverse"solution. All you need is a day or two of having to power up another hundred mega million dollar gas plant somewhere to make wind a uneconomical power solution.

Like tonight the wind is calm all over the country

Uhm'mm - NO

At 6 AM Sunday

Decent wind over all of Montana, western Dakotas, Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and Northeast Colorado PLUS most of Nova Scotia.

The Vestas V82 - 1.65 MW produces 1.6 MW at 10 m/s and 1.65 MW at 12.5 m/a. Cut in is at 3.5 m/s and basically a straight line in generation vs. speed till 1.4 MW at a bit less than 9 m/s when the line curves. So 0.7 MW at 6 m/s and so forth.

I just picked this model at random from Google.

Lots of 8 to 10 m/s wind in above.

Decent generation all the way from the Dakotas to western Pennsylvania. Some generation in West Texas, etc. although a low %. Although likely more than the 5% firm that ERCOT assigns to wind.

And the solution is burning natural gas and/or pumped storage to fill in the gaps.


That part of Montana is pretty remote. building transmission lines as a web is going to be pretty pricey. The maps shows mostly blue. Mostly 15 miles per hour or less. 10m/s is 22 miles per hour that's not blue. You are going to have a lot of capital equipment sitting under utilized for 70% of the time.


the distance to Texas is about 1300 miles.its cost you 3% per 1000 kilometer on a high voltage DC transmission system. that works out to be about 9000 per hour in transmission losses. Using a DC system. DC systems are expensive so its going to cost you to have this sitting around doing noting most of the time.

whats the distance from Montana to Florida?

I agree that conservation is significantly cheaper.

But greenhouse gases make coal and natural more expensive that wind with HV DC to balance.


6 m/s is mid-blue and WTs generate significant power at 6 m/s. 0.7 MW of 1.65 MW (42% capacity factor) in the random example selected. Lots of mid-blue and dark blue around that is generating significant power where there are WTs.

Texas was bailed out by wind with a 34% to 39% capacity factor. 95% and 100% capacity factor is nice, but not required.


A couple of rail lines go through Montana, E-W and one abandoned line (Milwaukee).

"95% and 100% capacity factor is nice, but not required."

100% employment would also be nice but is not required. I am only saying it nice to be thrifty and get the most bang for your buck. If your are going to put that much wind in you need to do the whole enchilada.

Don't forget that the standard weather measurements are at 10 meters, but wind turbine hubs are often 85 m and higher.  (Wind speed scales as roughly height1/7 and available power scales as speed³.)

Very good point.


Good article....But why continue with the Blame Game?

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda ?

This is a perfect example of why the direction in US needs to change. Everyone rides the Techno Merry-Go-Round, then cry when they don't get anywhere. "Feak accident"? No way...Poor fundamentals understanding the Natural way.

Local production, local distribution, local consumption is the ONLY way out. HVDC distro for thousands of miles? HA! There's a Bridge to nowhere.

Choose Wisely.
The Martian

1. This was a freak accident (the kicking offline of 2 coal-fired plants during high demand) caused by human error, namely freezing water pipes.

Quite the opposite:

  1. It was a systemic (not freak) problem, as the problem occurred at multiple plants.
  2. It was a major management error, because Texans just don't expect prolonged very cold weather and tend not to do much about it.

In other words, it takes a certain mindset or regulatory requirements to prepare for rare, high-impact events.


I think regulators are shifting more and more toward building less and less margin, over and above what is used all the time--push the systems harder. I think this shift toward less margin is part is what is behind the smart metering move.

Someone mentioned that there have been proposals in Texas to build coal fired power plants, and these have been turned down. This is part of it.

It seems like I read a FERC report a while back that seemed to give its blessing to running systems closer to the edge, so as to not need to spend more on power plants etc.

Good point.

The ideology that pushes for deregulation tends to count as savings necessary expenses that can be avoided by pretending rare, but by no means impossible situations will not occur. It is hard to cost out the effects of not planning these rare situations. If your ideology says you want to deregulate, then the tendency is to not bother including the costs of a lack of system reliability.

I think that there are some problems with the way reliability planning is done. Specifically, I don't think that these calculations take into account the fact that the costs of outages goes more than linearly as the frequency of the outages increases.

Essentially, the value of any system that keeps going down quickly approaches zero (or perhaps even goes negative because you would be better off if you hadn't become dependent on it in the first place).

"I think regulators are shifting more and more toward building less and less margin, over and above what is used all the time--push the systems harder."

It's not just regulators. It's just-in-time extended everywhere. ASME safety factors used to be 4.0, now they are 3.5 because the finite elements software is better, so they can better manage the high stress areas of a pressure vessel. At least in theory.

Plants are designed to much closer tolerance now than they used to be even in my career. The 1988 plant was boosted with minor upgrades to about 140% of original design. The 2008 plant is struggling to reach 90% of capacity, as multiple systems are hitting capacity at the same time.

This is not all bad, mind you. That 1988 plant had a lot of misspent capital that could not be fully utilized until 6 or 7 years later. But the 2008 plant is not going to be easily upgraded to another 20% capacity gain without massive spending, probably to the point that a new plant will be less expensive.

On a peak basis (4 to 5X base), it is already competitive and the hotter it gets the better it works, especially thermal solar electric.

Much as I like your point, I can't agree that it gets better when it gets hotter. Quite the reverse actually. Crystallian Silicon PV output degrades at roughly .5% per degree Celsius. I don't think solar thermal will do much better with heat as well. The max thermodynamic efficiency is
the difference in temperature divided by the working temp. Hot weather raises the output (sink) temperature, but the working temperature should stay fixed, so efficiency should go down as well as the temperature increases. This is also true for fossil fuel based (or nuclear) plants as well.

So how much solar energy did you generate with all the clouds in place last week?

Feb 1-7 shows 57.4 kwh to the batteries, enough to run all of our critical systems (batteries showed about 85% charge at the beginning of this period), not including water pumping. Ran the generator 3.2 hours (my wife had to do laundry), consuming about 2 gals. of diesel; put a nice finish charge on. I estimate that the separate water pumping system pumped about 400 gals. during the period. Propane for cooking and dryer, wood for heat. My insolence sensor is broken but we had 5 days overcast, 2 days about 50% overcast during the period, 1" snow, 1.4" rainfall. Average windspeed over the period: 4.2 mph. Average temp: 33.2 F (about 1 C). Lows well below freezing. Nice, cold and sunny the last few days. Batteries fully charged/equalized by noon Wed. this week. Finished laundry, ran dishwasher, ran vac, groomed dogs, filled water tanks.

Here's to good data logging.

Did I hear something about blackouts in TX? [sighs]

It wasn't poor treatment from reactionaries that damaged your Insolence Meters, was it?

Maine is getting some great solidarity during this cold snap.. would that I had just a few more PV Sol-diers up on my embankment there!! :>

My insolence sensor is broken

LOL! Well that's good because that way you won't be able to measure mine! Not to be too insolent.. I do think you mean your solar irradiance sensor, or pyranometer.

However the only sensor you really want to keep well maintained if you read this site are your irony and sarcasm meters >;^)

I need to go insolate myself from your cold, hard responses :-/

I was actually working on a really good rant about how I'm forced to susidize others' obscene lifestyles, but the wind has gone out of my generator.

While the weather is cold in the US it's hot down under:

All aircons running in the suburb, especially in those new McMansions which replace old cottages built in the 50s and 60s. The lights flickered, my son (upstairs) shouted "Fire! The transformer!" and ran out of the house to look what was happening just up the road.

Sydney's suburban grid too weak for growth

In Florida in the summer we have the same problem... plus this:


They've blown my transformer fuse twice in the last three years.

Flaming transformer....

Matt: I hope that was a fluke. Cause otherwise I would categorize it as somewhere between incompetence and negligence. We had lots of distribution transformers, shutdown due to thermal cutoffs during a heat wave a few years back (46C). But it was because they had thermal shutoffs, and all the utility crews had to do was cool them off, and flip the restart switch. [In this case the big problem was too many shutdowns too few crews.] In any case, any competent design would shut off the trannie before it got hot enough to catch fire.

Thoughtful design would have the thermal shutoff reset without intervention after the transformer had cooled off substantially, perhaps with a mechanical counter and reset limit.  Clearing the counter (if the limit hasn't been reached) is a lot less urgent than turning power back on.

Auto-reset is actually common in electricity distribution systems, via the so-called auto-reclosing circuit breaker. Distribution breakers tripped by a lightning surge are commonly designed to attempt to reclose after a set interval, for a set number of attempts. I've often wondered how many people they have killed, when they attempt to reclose a downed power line that would otherwise be isolated and safe behind its tripped breaker. Everything has its drawbacks, and thoughtful design needs to consider them all.

Auto-reset is actually common in electricity distribution systems, via the so-called auto-reclosing circuit breaker. Distribution breakers tripped by a lightning surge are commonly designed to attempt to reclose after a set interval, for a set number of attempts.

I can remember sitting down to dinner in our old farmhouse. There would be a lightning flash, and all the lights would go out. Our father would say, "One".

Then the lights would come on, stay on for a while, and go out again. Our father would say, "Two".

The lights would come on again, and our father would say, "Kids, quickly, go find the candles because it's three strikes and you're out."

So, we would get out the candles, light them, the lights would go out again for good, and we'd sit down to a nice candlelight dinner, and later have desert in front of the fireplace while waiting for the electrical crews to get the power back on again.

Makes a change from reading about UK natural gas winter supply problems!

These blackouts were an example of a Normal Accident

Failure in just one part may coincide with the failure of an entirely different part, revealing hidden connections, neutralised redundancies, bypassed firewalls, and random occurrences for which no engineer or manager could reasonably plan.

When a technology has become sufficiently complex and tightly coupled, accidents are inevitable and therefore in a sense 'normal'.

Here is a NASA presentation on Normal Accident Theory

A complex system exhibits complex interactions when it has:
- Unfamiliar, unplanned, or unexpected sequences which are not visible or comprehensible
- Design features such as branching and feedback loops
- Opportunities for failures to jump across subsystem boundaries.

A complex system is tightly coupled when it has:
- Time-dependent processes which cannot wait
- Rigidly ordered processes
- Only one path to a successful outcome
- Very little slack

All of which describes the Texas electricity supply system. They need to rethink the system with the goal of reducing the complexity and the number of interactions to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

Re: NASA presentation on Normal Accident Theory, the Feynman perspective.

Personal observations on
the reliability of the Shuttle,
by R.P. Feynman
It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?"

We have also found that certification criteria used in Flight Readiness Reviews often develop a gradually decreasing strictness. The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence.

Emphasis mine.

About 25 years ago, I worked briefly analyzing failure modes on the design of the ISS. One interesting aspect of this work was the problems laid out in the book Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow, which first appeared in 1984. In the book, the author laid out his claim that accidents often happen because humans misunderstand the situation which then leads them to make incorrect decisions. His example of the accident at Three Mile Island was especially interesting, but there were many others as well. Perrow updated his book with a newer edition in 1999.

When we were involved with our study, NASA's efforts were directed toward a system called Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), in which a small group of engineers would sit down and attempt to predict the consequences of the failure of any element within the overall system. Of course, if the engineers didn't predict a failure mode, there would be no way to assess the impact. From the link above, NASA still uses FMEA, but they have gone further in assessing the risks of complex systems. That's because there are failure modes which end in catastrophe, especially so once one is airborne. See the article about ValueJet 592 which appeared in the Atlantic. The Challenger accident 25 years ago is another case in point, where the launch went forward even though the temperature was a record cold that morning. The engineers at Thiokol back in Utah were screaming "Don't launch", but the management went ahead anyway. It's been claimed that Ronny Ray Gun wanted to use the fact of the the civilian teacher who was a passenger in his State of the Union address, so there might have been political pressure to "go". Not to forget, there are peripheral effects of accidents as well, such as the shutdown of the nuclear power plant building business after TMI and Chernobyl and the fact that my job (and career) evaporated soon after the Challenger Accident...

E. Swanson

The Challenger findings were quite the cover-up. I remember reading the tech articles and it really was a horrendous design problem with the launch structure. Google "dynamic overshoot" and "bending moments". The o-rings didn't have a chance against the launching torques.

Here is one article:

It was a perfect coverup because they were able to blame it on an act of god (the cold weather), a smallish sub-contractor (Morton), and they had a convenient whistle-blower. Richard Feynman coming in at the end was a brilliant move to bless the findings (Feynman was at Cal Tech which runs NASA's JPL).

All the design problems were fixed up in subsequent missions. If this coverup did not occur it would have put a huge black mark on NASA for incompetency.

It also makes for a nice conspiracy story.

Some systems books call this "emergent behavior" of complex systems. The Murphy's Law version is "all complex systems exhibit emergent behaviors; most such behaviors are unwelcome".

If you have processes that are run by machines, they tend to fail too quickly for humans to react, and you say "just slow the whole thing down and let a human make a smarter decision". When you have humans in the loop you get inattentiveness and habit on top of training issues and sloth that result in improper actions, and you say "we need a machine to do this so dumb mistakes don't happen". What you really need are more robust systems, and robustness tends to be orthogonal at best to efficiency and sophistication.

Complex systems have personalities, and whether issues cancel each other out, add up, or form positive or negative feedback loops is hard to predict. That's why you can have one old truck with 200K miles and even with worn brakes that pull, loose steering that wanders, and bad shocks that load up asymmetrically, it "drives just fine" even in unexpected situations, while another is "scary" to drive and is a handful to keep on the road. It all depends on whether the brakes, steering, and suspension combine to 'take a set' in some predictable and mostly linear way, or if they shift or oscillate continually. We all successfully deal with emergent behaviors of systems all the time "oh, yeah, you just gotta do THIS", and we all fail to as well "I'm throwing this piece of crap away."

Coupled systems are definitely problematic to model or master, but I think populations of such systems could be modeled statistically, and some faults could be predicted. It doesn't take a systems engineer to know that if you have many of your plants running near 100% output with all your energy grids near peak demand while the environment is nearing record extremes, that issues are likely. Since most systems don't engineer for multiple faults, you have to engineer margins and tolerance so that when multiple faults occur, you can deal with those, and then the single-fault cases can be happily taken in stride. This isn't exactly the JIT, best-quarterly-performance sort of approach.

Actually, at heart, its a failure to recognise that its a complex system. They never really get as far as analysing the problem properly because the project management 'work breakdown structure' view leads them to think in a reductionist, modular fashion.

Even when its the V&V phase that cause so much heartache and cost overrun, they don't realise that joining things together is where it gets hairy.

What tends to happen is units are assessed to have failure rates of "1 in 1,000,000 hours" and people then lose interest in them. They implicitly consider failures to be independent.

If you want to trace back 80%+ of the foul-ups and disasters of the last n decades - they come back to idea that the risks are independent when they are dependent.

The recent collapse of the financial fraud known as subprime can be tracked back to the 'independent events' error in Black-Scholes. It's everywhere.

To fix it you don't need statistics (which is part of the reason you're in this mess in the first place); you need a 'system' head on everyone who's making decisions, particularly at the top.

To fix it you don't need statistics (which is part of the reason you're in this mess in the first place)

I think that should be replaced, with you need more realistic statistics models. Which means your models must accomodate corellated events, and fat (non gaussian) tails on distributions.....

I would agree with you 100% that people tend to underestimate the correlation between adverse events. You are likely to get problems when temperatures are high or low, or there is some other stress on the system. I was one who predicted financial problems in 2008, because everyone was assuming the chance of default on loans was independent. Clearly, if you have a recession, defaults go up. They oil prices spike and cause people to have less discretionary income, this is another stress that causes defaults to increase.

Furthermore, all of the sliced and diced securities were sold based on models that assumed independence of failures. Even bad underwriting would be sufficient to make this assumption untrue.

Yep. Using an equation you don't understand as a magic wand tends to come back and bite you - although far too few of those responsible for this failing got bitten...

I've always thought that one of the greatest 'bangs for the buck' a government could play was to have written, then distribute for free, a tool that made considering correlated risks in a project/system/service easy, fun, and quick to do.

Just think of the billions saved from disasters and failures averted.

Problem is the government is one of the groups unable to do this type of thinking in the first place.

I've always thought that one of the greatest 'bangs for the buck' a government could play was to have written, then distribute for free, a tool that made considering correlated risks in a project/system/service easy, fun, and quick to do.

As an example, how about a government-funded automated medical diagnostic system? The person enters their medical situation the best they can describe it and the expert system responds with a diagnosis and a disclaimer. Won't happen because the medical establishment is against it, but it would be useful.

Checkout NHSDirect.

It is limited, and the medical lot did just what you say, but it was developed to deal with the 80% of potential patients who already know what's wrong with them, or its easy to determine. No reason why the system as envisaged couldn't be implemented without the interference - most of the background work is already done. Just takes a little bit more political will to sit on the doctors.

The benefits of a single payer system where the government tries to reduce costs while the doctors try to increase them....

Such tools are available; I use one in particular regularly. Not free, but under 5-figures. "Easy, fun and quick" ... well, I think it's fun. As for easy and quick, relatively speaking I guess. To get a meaningful answer on all the complex interactions, there really is no substitute for understanding all parts of the system, representing it adequately in a continuous simulation, and running that repeatedly monte carlo fashion to elucidate the possibilities. A big task for anything beyond the trivial.

In addition to the problem of event causing failures being correlated, there is the problem that the results of failures in complex systems can be very large.

If the cost of a frozen pipe is computed as costs to replace the pipe plus downtime for the boiler that the pipe services, a relatively low value to insulating the pipe results. If the actual cost is a power outage that brings the whole electric grid for the state of Texas is the actual result, then the mistaken cost estimation has led to a huge error.

Note that no probabilities are involved in this error. Just a mistake in predicting the outcome of a minor maintenance mistake that leads to a cascading failure.

A frozen pipe should be viewed as a fault, and impacts can be estimated by (risk magnitude) = (likelihood of fault) x (impact of fault). You very clearly make the point that impact was underestimated. Upfront, each fault might be hard to pin down, but you can make some estimate of maintenance events over time, with a cushion for unknown faults, and come up with a budget and plan for dealing with them. If you have the risk magnitude closer to right, you'd spend more money on sensors and rapid-reaction repairs.

A lack of systems thinking was at work here. Too little consideration of the "big picture".

I think both parts of the calculation are at issue because the models used tend to underestimate both the likelihood of occurrence of extreme events and the impact of failures.

If the assumption of event independence is taken away, the statistics tend to be very complex because it simply doesn't work to use the normal distribution or any of its derivatives. If the assumption that effects that can be caused by any event are small enough that no single event can skew the results is false, then, again, the normal distribution cannot be replaced.

A good risk analysis would spend a fair amount of effort figuring out what can cause very large events. If anyone had taken the time to look at previous weather records, then the risk of freezing would have been obvious. If anybody had done any stress test modeling of system performance of load shedding, then the problems with the peaking type natural gas plants would have been obvious. This list could easily be extended, but the point should be obvious.

I am always amazed how ignorant people can be when their ignorance is paid for.

If the system is broken up into little units -- a natural gas generating unit here, a coal fired plant there, transmission lines under someone else's responsibility, etc., each of the units, if they bother to think about the (likelihood of fault) x (impact of fault) at all, are likely to evaluate the impact of fault in terms of their own lost profits for a day or two, until the fault can be corrected. This isn't enough to convince them to do much about the fault, unless some smart, motivated regulator is looking at this in detail, and has a big stick to chase after the little units with. The loss to people using the electricity probably dwarfs the loss of profits (theoretically unable to run factories, food spoils, more accidents from lack of stop lights, etc.) but no one thinks about this.

This makes a strong case for regulation.

I think the point is that if the power system is to be run in a reasonable fashion someone has to plan for systemic effects or the users of the system will feel effects of systemic problems that haven't been planned for.

Planning for systemic effects isn't free. If they aren't planned for, then it makes the bottom line look a whole lot better than it really is.

It doesn't appear that the costs of this planning were put into the deregulation set up. This omission smacks of negligence.

It also doesn't appear that there is any mechanism to hold the players responsible for this seeming negligence to account for the damages done when the system fails. As Gail so ably points out, the damages from unreliable power far exceed the lost profits from a bit of downtime.

The only quibble that I have with Gail's analysis is the possible lack of recognition that, if these sort of event happen with any frequency, part of the costs borne by system users should include the value of alternate backup systems that they have to put in place to avoid disruptions caused by service interruptions.

While putting a gas or diesel generator in every block would do a lot to avoid power interruptions, it is a lot more expensive per unit of power than centralized electric utilities. This extra expense should probably be considered part of the cost of a lack of system reliability.

I am not sure that we really could put generators on every corner, with the cost of the generator, and the problem of maintaining them properly. Someone would have to pay for this extra layer. Putting battery backup for computers is pretty much what people do.

When grocery stores around here have generators, they are only for a few functions--partial lighting, running the cash registers, and probably some refrigeration. It would be hard to have local generators enough to run everyone's furnace and refrigerator. It would get to be the same "size" as the original system.

The larger the customer base, the more diverse it is. And this allows the large system to have fewer MW than the totality of neighborhood or individual systems.

HydroQuebec likes dual fuel heating systems. Electric down to a certain temperature and them switch to natural gas, propane or oil. One section of demand drops off the grid just as demand increases for all electric heat.

And in a large area everyone does not have peak demand at the same second. In a simple example, people brew coffee, toast bread and blow dry their hair (all 1.2 to 1.5 kW demands) at slightly different times. A utility naturally averages these demands. Individual generators could not. And a neighborhood would need to be fairly large and diverse to equal a utility (for example, retired people and shift workers typically brew coffee at different times than office workers, so a neighborhood with a high % of people commuting to office work would have a spike in demand every morning).

In summary, local generation without grid ties will require more MW to meet demand.


Both Alan and Gail have hit the nail on the head.

The reason that fairly large power networks have been implemented, is that they can average out the load among many users which turns out to be a far more efficient and cheaper way to generate power than to use local generation.

The only examples I can recall of local power generation relate to war zones such as Baghdad when the grid was taken out. Local stepped into the breach entrepreneurs, selling power to their neighbors from small emergency generators. It was not a pretty sight. 'Some power was available sometimes' is about the best that you can say for the effort. Clearly, no network planning was involved.

To get back on track with the discussion, I think that the main point is that network reliability costs real dollars. Those real dollars can be spent implementing plans to maintain reliability or cleaning up the mess that occurs when planning isn't done and reliability plans are not implemented.

It is very easy to show very good financial results if you do not run systems to maintain reliability -- until something breaks. Then costs of cleaning up the mess, restoring power, and paying for the damage that occurs when the power grid dies suddenly are very large.

The way in which deregulated systems have been implemented has overlooked these problems.

I wonder if DSM will have some issues with causing undesirable synchronization. Suppose most people in a city buy Brand X DSM water heaters and washing machines, and deploy them with the factory-default optimization profile. Along comes the daily DSL cost schedule, and WHAM!, at 1:00 when the price goes up 2c all of those controllers kick into cost-aversion mode and dump megawatts of load in a few seconds. Then, at 7:00, SLAM!, it goes the other way and they all kick on.

Datacom network can exhibit self-reinforcing traffic waves like this, and it took revised Internet standards to really solve some of them. I wonder if DSM networks have already considered the issue of self-creating demand waves, and the importance of dithering cost steps and DSL actions semi-randomly across a customer base?

You might look into California's history trying to start a free market in energy -- and how it was exploited by Enron via induced sporadic shortages.

Texas has always done a lousy job of maintaining its grid, they are famous for overloading their transformers. Blaming windmills and natural gas for the Third World Texas grid problems is silly.
It's more like Mexico where every factory has its own big generator for blackouts.

The Texas grid 'system'?
(System? Them's fightin' words.)
Hell, it's just a bunch a good ole boys.

There's a lot of R-power in Texas, but not much to boast about in their R-ratings.

Not surprised to see this post hanging it on the supply-side again, esp. as wind is involved.. but I'm more inclined to say that the vulnerability over the long term would be better dealt with on the Demand side.. at least where unpredictable weather is going to be the new wild-card in the deck. For Hot or Cold, a 'dumb thermos' is a smart investment.

Carpenters, seal thyself!

the vulnerability over the long term would be better dealt with on the Demand side.. at least where unpredictable weather is going to be the new wild-card in the deck. For Hot or Cold, a 'dumb thermos' is a smart investment.

I agree. If we changed our expectations, and had installed the appropriate amount of demand management, then such rare events would be inconvienient, but not especially damaging.

Remember, demand was't all that high at the time of the rolling blackouts. Summertime peak consumption had been far higher with no problems. I think demand issues were far from everyone's thoughts. Also, there was no method set down for reducing demand, except talking industrial users off-line. Unfortunately, gas fired electric power plants were classified as industrial users, so they were some of the businesses taken off line.

But I don't point to demand side adjustments simply to affect 'periods of critical demand' .. they are just as, or more important as cushions during interruptions. This event was a fluke between extreme weather and some technical complications that cascaded. But if people have homes that can handle more time 'offline', and can manage with a lower flowrate overall, then there will be less damage caused by service interruptions.

If people have tighter houses that can hold their energy, and with a wind-heavy state, if they also have these tools for storing offpeak electrical energy as thermal.. then they are more resilient to outages, which would start to play out more as an inconvenience and less as a disaster with life-threatening implications.. The thermal storage might not even be a 'demand side reduction', but simply the option to time-shift the demand.. essentially getting equipped structures off of the JIT heating regime. (and adding 'smart' thermal mass to the interior of those buildings)

These days, if your laptop gets unplugged, even if the battery is old, you are brought onto 'alert', but your work doesn't just perish in a brutal little Coup-de-grace. The effects are softened.

Gail wrote;

"Also, there was no method set down for reducing demand, except talking industrial users off-line."

That's the problem - the penetration of smart grid assets takes time. Note that this does not simply mean turning power of to consumers, it means sending signals to their systems that adjust power consumption based on availability and real-time cost of power. Any number of devices can be programmed to alter their consumption based on these factors, especially hot water heater and HVAC setpoints. There can be setpoints for minor cost changes, major cost changes, and emergency shortfalls.

Meanwhile, the failure of coal power plants does not infer that we need more of them.

Failure of such plants certainly doesn't mean we need fewer, only better management of those we have. And some additional resilience in supply overall. Fault modes are only one in a long list of considerations, I would say. Ideally you have a good mix so critical failure modes are less likely to couple. If you have cloudy, still, frigid, drought-stricken during reactor repair periods you might still have issues, but at least your goal should be that any particular environmental issue would affect only a small fraction of your generation and transport capacity, and presumably you'd have extra.

However, an open free market is unlikely to develop is desirable ways, with redundancy and diversity.

The prospect of "100 years of cheap natural gas" have made that the preferred choice for new generation plants for about 25 years now.


Yes, the Oil and NG industry commercials have come back in force on the TV machine.

Don't worry, we have 100 years (and growing!) supply of NG, and we can get at plenty of oil with a minimum environmental impact by drilling lots of vertical then horizontal wells from fewer rigs!

And the oil/NG industries support 9 million U.S. jobs!



The established, scientific consensus is that our nation now has as much natural gas as Saudi Arabia has oil. We are the envy of the World for this natural abundance. It is time we put it to greater use for our nation's economy, environment, and security.

We also have enough domestic (U.S.) oil and NG to power 60M cars and heat 160M homes for 60 years! Wait, I thought the other commercial said 100 years! No mention of population growth, using NG to power electric generators, needing oil and NG for chemical feedstocks, fertilizer, etc.

Watch the following brief commercials...this is what Joe average TV viewer is fairly bombarded with every day. This is why my colleagues at work blamed former Governor Richardson for the NG shortages, since he and the Democrats forbade drilling in NM's Otero Mesa.


Oil and NG for America commercials:









I've lived the transition from the Bell system prior to 1984 through break-up and then an ongoing transition from a "telecom centric" network to more of the "internet centric", with widely varying approaches to redundancy and diversity. EVERY network has well-known and unknown single points of failure, but how much expense and effort goes into preventing outages is a function of both regulation and economics.

Used to be that lifeline telephony was a given -- it HAD to stay up during most other outages, so you could generally call to report your electricity, cable, or water was out, and hopefully only rarely would your phone be out (and even then, it was likely a localized failure in your neighborhood). If a central office caught fire, though, you were certainly stuck! Today, the expectation is that if your house phone doesn't work you'll call from a cell-phone, or sent a text, or and e-mail. The new meme is not less fault-prone, only perhaps a bit more robust in recovery options and work-arounds -- there is indeed greater diversity.

For power plants, moving all from coal to nat'l gas has its own obvious risks. I've thought about rotating my family car fleet to diverse energy sources too -- nat'l gas, electricity, diesel, and/or gasoline -- to better tolerate point shortages as well. Even the ethanol push helps make energy more universally fungible.

However, as Texas learned, if a situation arises that stresses the overall capacity of the ENTIRE containing system, nasty faults can happen, and in a resource constrained world spare capacity (and supply for it) will be hard to come by. What if, instead of plants failing for modest technical reasons, there simply wasn't enough gas, coal, uranium, water, and what-have-you to run them all? Then, Texas would be waiting for the wind to blow, and people would be running their fridges and TVs on their allotted power window of a few hours per day.

I think in nested system of systems, increasing interconnectedness at any given level tends to increase undesirable coupling to common faults one layer up or down, while tending to mitigate independent faults at the current level.

Paleocon said;

"Failure of such plants certainly doesn't mean we need fewer"

I didn't say that - certainly there are a number of factors (including projected resources, a major focus of this blog), some of which are not allowed to be discussed on this blog.

"And some additional resilience in supply overall."

There may not be the luxury of increasing resilience in coal supply in the mid term and certainly not the long term.

"your goal should be that any particular environmental issue would affect only a small fraction of your generation"

That would put coal at a major disadvantage, then, suggesting that shifting generation capacity to other sources would be needed. Unless by environmental issue you were referring to ambient design conditions, i.e., heat, cold, precipitation, etc. Of course, coal failed badly here, too.

There are many other factors other than ambient design conditions (i.e., resource depletion, geopolitical, pollution, extraction impacts, etc), so the generation (and demand) picture is much more complex.

There are a lot of ways of doing the "smart grid". If all the smart grid does is charge the consumer a higher rate when the wind isn't blowing, I expect that most people won't pay much attention, and the impact will be tiny.

They can actually alter consumption of appliances like as you suggest, or turn them off without the homeowners intervention. To make them actually "work" at times of major shortfalls, it seems like they would need to be fairly intrusive, in terms of cutting off appliances. It seems like they would also need to be quite expensive, with remote controls for each major appliance.

To what extent has the intrusive type of smart grid really been tested in practice? Have people been willing to accept it? Wouldn't a simpler--lower rate if we can cut off your air conditioner or heat when we need to--be cheaper and almost as effective?

On some small island grids, there are plugs for refrigerators (and any other plug in appliance) that drop the frig from the grid when voltage drops too much or Hz wanders off too much. In cases I am aware of, just mandated for refrigerator, freezer and washing machine.

Fairly cheap, and since they reduce demand just as the island grid is about to crash (blackout for everybody) they are well accepted.

But people living on small islands already accept a loss of convenience for many other things. Not your typical American.


PS: I could support adding such a circuit to every refrigerator with a proviso that after an hour or so the compressor cam run for a few minutes. If the cost-benefit to society is there, of course.

Yair...folks get pretty hung up on continuity of power for refrigeration. It's not necessary. For years we shut our generator down when we went to work at six thirty in the morning...and it wasn't started untill we came home again about five o'clock that night.

This was on the Gulf Coast in north Queensland forty degrees was commom in the summer and we never lost food or had any problems...in fact the appliances were frost free and seemed to function better for it. The main thing is to keep the doors on fridges and freezers closed when the power is down.

A couple of years ago I read California's official plan for dealing with natural gas shortfalls in the system. It was explicit in that electrical generators and other industrial plants were going to be shut off. It was not an oversight. The rationale was that they felt it was far too dangerous to risk stopping gas flow to single family homes, having millions of pilot lights go off and then having explosive risks when the gas started flowing again.

there are still pilot lights...good god! Do ranges with spark igniters have a safety feature that would keep gas supply from flowing after a shut down until the spark igniter engaged?

Hi Luke,

Most all installed appliances have electronic ignition systems but domestic water heaters, with the exception of power vented models, would still have pilots (so too most gas fireplaces). Nonetheless, the thermocouple should turn off the gas value if the pilot should go out.


There are still homes with quite old appliance in them (my in laws have 40+ year old appliances and aren't that much of an exception). I don't know at what point the powers would feel confident that pretty much everything has been updated. Many of the old appliances were built like tanks.

That's quite true. Not sure of the exact date, but I believe gas ranges could no longer use standing pilot lights after 1988 or 1990 which is little more than 20 years, and they can soldier on forever so many, as you point out, will still be in service today and will remain so for many more years to come.


Thanks Paul.
I guess an little heat from the pilot isn't wasted on a hot water heater. I was thinking of ranges left on (especially as a poor source of extra heat in cold weather) and the gas going down. I don't think any sort of thermocouple device would shut down the flow pending reactivation of the igniter, but I'm not sure. I've cook electric just so as not to bring propane onto the property. My five hundred gallons of gravity fed fuel oil could wreak enough havoc if we get a real good shake--a 7.9 centered about 150 miles away just made the house sway a bit back in 2002 though.

Maybe this week I will get off my butt and jump into the construction sequence that will enable my pellet boiler do more than take up space. I was getting a fair break on my electricity for a month or two but it appears my electronic meter failed altogether as it said I used a whopping 20kWh for all of last month. Needless to say the boys got a new meter installed a couple days after the reading-back up to my normal 25+kWh a day winter use with the new one (resistance heat on the 8 foot deep water line a constant, plugging cars in can jack that up some). Curious to see if they will be able to remotely read the new meter without climbing my steep drive--my wi-fi isn't real reliable through the trees four or five hundred feet away.

Part of the reason for putting the post up is to get more ideas as to what all is going on.

I know maintenance has been a problem in many places. If someone is trying to cut corners, overloading transformers would seem like it might seem to be something someone would do.

I was told this by Texas electrical engineers who work with TXU about 10 years ago.
Actually I was really thinking of Baghdad where people openly poach power from utility poles even in 2010.
It's a waste of time trying to reform such places.

It is all very well to think about how wonderfully the grid works in Japan, the EU or Scandanavia but that's not 90% of the world.
The Grid as a Green Saviour is wildly overrated.

A better bet for most places would be decentralized solar or wind.

How important is it that there are a lot of suboptimal wind areas--just put up more and higher wind turbines over the endless Texas horizon.

True some technologies like nuclear wouldn't work without a grid but at the rate nuclear is growing it will be out of business in 50 years anyways.

As for the NIMBY folks they can either complain about the giant transmission lines or about the raft of wind turbines sprouting everywhere.

I suggest you do some research on several areas you mentioned before posting things that do not apply.

So far, he's offered a lot more to back up his points than you have. The ball's in your court.

As a disclaimer, I haven't read any comprehensive explanations for the cascading failures in Texas, but I would like to add a few comments. My experience is with interstate natural gas transmission which is regulated by FERC.

First the pipelines are sized to meet at least the amount of Firm Demand contracts that they have. No one just taps into a pipeline and expects to be able to take gas. Many of the 50 plants (that's the number that I heard)that were unable to produce electricity may have been gas fired peakers which would normally be expected to come on line in the summer. These plants would have interruptible contracts which means that if the pipes are full meeting the contractual obligations of the Firm customers that are usually the local distribution companies (LDC's)and any base load electric or manufacturer then the interruptible customer has no rights.

Gas is injected into storage until the October - November time period depending upon the weather and end user demand and then it is withdrawn to help meet high winter demand. There has been a lot of storage developed in the last ten years especially in LA and MS so I doubt that a lack of supply area storage is a problem. With the current glut of natural gas supplies some storage is being used for arbitrage. Now you are correct that the withdrawal rate is limited but that is known, it is tested and it is spelled out in the contract.

I don't know how much electric compression failed but over dependence on electric compression especially up north has always baffled me. I guess when gas was $13/mmcf electric looked pretty good but nobody can have both types of compression at the same station unless FERC changes the rules and customers are willing to pay for that backup 365 days a year.

Having said all of this some of the gas transmission lines in question may have been intrastate and they would be regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission I think and that could be a whole new discussion.

Last thing. When the wells freeze off I don't think anything can be done and the freeze off would probably apply to storage wells also.

Its good to hear from someone who works directly in the field.

One thing I hear you saying is that natural gas pipelines can't have both natural gas and electric compression. I wasn't aware of what the rules were. I know out West, where electric transmission lines are far apart, natural gas powered pipelines seem to be the rule. But as you say, if gas were $13 mcf, and cheap electricity were available, electric compression would look like a much better deal.

You can have both electric and gas compression on the same pipeline. Compressor stations which are situated every 50 to 100 miles along the line are there to boost the pressure back up to the maximum allowable operating pressure (maop) if required for anticipated daily throughput. The rule is that FERC will not allow you to earn a return on a unit that is only there as backup. So with no return allowed a company is not going to spend the millions for backup compression. Everything is geared for peak day which is in the winter.

Good time to jump in, was terribly busy yesterday and couldn't join the discussion...

The gas pipeline from NE BC to the U.S. uses gas compression turbines. A typical station has a 25,000 HP Pratt & Whitney jet turbine. They are starting to use the exhaust heat for co-generation.

Any experience dtransmission/grid engineer could have told anyone whom cared to listen of the potential cascading failures. But no one listens because we are overly cautious or extremist in our preventive designs. You see, we deal with the probability axiom "How many babies is it acceptable for a nurse to drop?". An event may be one in thirty years, but boy is it a doozy!

Now the biz-kids have taken over and the Great Manitou of the Market Place will guide all believers to righteousness and purity of the profit margin. So where was the Invisible Hand keeping those pumping stations going?

It should be mandatory for ANY employee at a utility or power station to have a rudimentary passing grade in Thermodynamics 101. Not impose engineering chauvinism, but to gain the understanding of the systems, dynamics, and limitations of the industry which employs them.

The N. American grid is one big machine, an analogue machine with electron wave propagation at 0.6 times the speed of light, (contrary to common belief, electricity in metallic waveguides does not travel at the speed of light); thermal masses with capacitance and inductance; angular momentum translated into magnetic fields and then translated into massive electric current during faults; tendrils extending out to build economic opportunity and hope; and sometimes, a little light that folds away the darkness; or a plug, "the plug" energizing a life giving machine at the other end.

Particularly today, we are designing the electric system to drive the sewage treatment plant so residents can flush their toilets and keep the poop flowing. Yes, today is a poopy kind of day...


It should be mandatory for ANY employee at a utility or power station to have a rudimentary passing grade in Thermodynamics 101. Not impose engineering chauvinism, but to gain the understanding of the systems, dynamics, and limitations of the industry which employs them.

But especially this part.

You make some good points. However producing gas wells can be re-started if someone will go out and thaw the freeze point. Storage wells normally do not have freeze problems because the injected gas has been dried before it gets to the storage facility.

Gail missed a major point

Wind saved the day in Texas last Wednesday. Texas needs more wind, not less. Wind was the solution, *NOT* the problem.

Last Wednesday, severe cold shut down several "reliable" coal fired plants. Natural gas curtailments shut down or reduced output at many "reliable" natural gas power plants. After interruptibile power was cut, first 1,000 MW of firm power (homes and businesses) was cut and eventually 4,000 MW was cut.

During this period, wind supplied 3,500 to 4,000 MW of power (34% to 39% of nameplate), far more than the 5% that ERCOT assigns to wind for firm capacity.

Had Texas no wind, the cuts would not just have been just twice as deep and MUCH longer (subtract 3,500 to 4,000 MW) but the natural gas cutbacks would have been much more severe. For Texas wind had been saving natural gas for hours, days, weeks and months beforehand. Significantly increase natural gas cutbacks and much of Texas would have been shivering in the dark for extended periods.

OTOH, has Texas built twice as much wind, then ZERO problem. Extra MW and zero natural gas cutbacks.

Best Hopes for Acknowledging Reality,


+ 1


Best Hopes for Acknowledging Reality

Reality: something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists objectively and in fact.

And, I'd like to add, that which can not be altered by means of wishful thinking.

but then reality is just one big hologram...or maybe the big hologram that is the observable universe is merely the discernable edge of reality ?- )

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Philip K. Dick

hoof 't Hooft ?- )

Alan -

Right on!

Again, Gail's relentless campaign to disparage wind power fails once the assertions are subject to close scrutiny.

One other thing that has been increasingly bothering me and which I don't think has been mentioned in this thread is the effects of increasing use of natural gas for power generation and how that conflicts with the use of natural gas for home heating.

I am not disputing the rationale for going with natural gas when a utility wants to add additional electrical generating capacity: i.e., lower capital cost, lower carbon emissions, and more flexibility in load management. However, what I think is overlooked is that in the US natural gas is the most widespread means of home heating. The more natural gas that is diverted to power generation, then the less will be available for home heating. This will only get worse, not better.

For all intents and purposes, in the US no one heats their home with coal anymore (at least not directly, though electric heating could be considered, at least partially, heating with coal). So coal used for electrical power generation does not compete with home heating use. As it is hardly practical to convert millions of homes to coal furnaces when the gas gets in short supply (not to mention the horrendous air pollution problems that would result from doing so), shouldn't we discourage rather than encourage increased use of natural gas for power generation? Quite simply, for millions of homeowners there is no substitute for natural gas if they want to heat their homes.

One can do without electricity for long periods of time, but in places like Minnesota or upstate New York you can literally freeze to death if natural gas is cut off for days at a time because a large fraction of it is going to power plants and not enough is left over for home heating.

the effects of increasing use of natural gas for power generation and how that conflicts with the use of natural gas for home heating.

It would be interesting to see how domestic cogeneration would have affected the recent problems in Texas.  I suspect that they would have been ameliorated quite a bit, but that's just my gut feeling and not something I'd assert without crunching numbers.

It would be interesting to see how domestic cogeneration would have affected the recent problems in Texas.

A top line condensing gas heater can be approximately 92% efficient. Going to the limit with co-generation you may get to 100% efficiency. However if your energy source is a combined cycle gas power plant at 60%, and you have transmission losses of 5%, and use a ground sourced heat pump/AC with a COP = 3 then you an effective efficiency of .6 x .95 x 3.00 = 170%. Add to this the fact that a heat pump can do both heating and cooling with one piece of equipment. The only problem is that most home buyers look at the cost of the house, not the operating expenses. A contractor may pay $1,800 for a gas heater and a through the wall AC unit at Home Depot, but may have to pay $4,000 - $5,000 to install a ground sourced heat pump.

IIRC, the stated total efficiency of some of the newer cogenerators is also 92%; the big question is what this would do for total gas demand during a crisis.

The output split is about 1 kW electrical and 2.5 kW thermal, so the efficiencies are about 26% and 66% respectively.  Producing 1 kW of heat using the cogenerator instead of a 92%-efficient furnace uses an additional 428 watts of gas; the cogenerator also yields 394 W of electricity.  The marginal efficiency is 394/428 = 92%, much better than the CCGT system.

Feeding the cogenerator's electric output through the same heat pump with a CoP of 3.0 yields 0.66 + 3*.26 = 1.44.  This isn't as good as the CCGT+heat pumps, but under extreme conditions the heat pump CoP may fall.  Anything which brings heat pump CoP under 2.1 favors the cogenerator overall, not just as a replacement for a gas furnace.

You guys, if you support wind generation, should really be much more quiet for now, until the wind generation statistics become available. Probability is very high that wind will come out of the analysis having confirmed Gail's concerns, regardless of "one lucky day".

OTOH, has Texas built twice as much wind, then ZERO problem.

Not necessarily.  If winds were high enough to drive farms into cutoff, the problem could have gone from oversupply to rolling blackouts in hours.  Now, if you had

  • Double the wind
  • More gas storage filled from the surplus
  • Something like CAES for an additional buffer

one could be reasonably assured that the problem would not recur under a repeat of the conditions.

Texas wind farms are already widespread enough, in geography but also manufacturer & model and tower height, to prevent cut-off from becoming a widespread problem.

The link below (bottom of page) shows the actual locations of Texas wind farms. Apparently transmission access is quite important in siting, more than the best possible wind. A tendency that encourages more diversity in siting.


52+ mph winds do not persist long enough and wide enough to impact all wind farms.

I think it is clear that more WTs were generating <100% than were shut down due to high winds and cold. Probably true for every minute for many years.

Best Hopes for More Wind,


PS: Wilderado is quoted in the article as having cut-off problems. Wilderado is an isolated wind farm near the Louisiana border.

Y'all are both right and both wrong. I guess this is one reason why Alan and I have chats once in a while. Wind power does not create VARs to operate the grid. Wind turbine generators are permanent magnet motors and have very limited capacity, if any, to create capacitive, or Leading VARs.

The FF fueled thermal plants and the wind farms have a symbiotic relationship. The wind farms require the VARs that steam turbines can produce to maintain grid voltage and stability so wind generators can transmit on the grid.

Once again N. America lags Europe as the EU has come to realize the value of this otherwise uncompensated critical resource and have started establishing tariffs for VAR producers.

For extra $, VAR support is available.



But why buy something that adds no value (to the buyer).


Here in BC, BC Hydro requires wind farms to install Static VAR Compensators which is a direct overhead. The dynamic nature of the switching electronics allows a wind farm to operate like a synchronous generator.

They use the same technology as HVDC Lite with voltage commutated rectifiers which can contribute VARs to the system.

RE: reliable coal generated electricity.

This reminds me of an episode that occurred to me when I lived in the Western NC mountains. We had wood heat but for insurance purposes, put in some baseboard electric heaters and called it our main heat source. The insurance agent said that wood was not considered a 'reliable' main source of heat by the insurance companies. In the winter of 1976 (as I recall) there was a big winter storm and zero F temperatures for several days. Below freezing for a month. People all over the county were having pipes frozen because the electric lines were down. Of course those of us with wood heat had no problem (we also had gravity fed water from a spring).

Sometimes 'primitive' is more reliable.

Wind shill. ;-)


I wonder what impact there was from Texas having its own grid and limited DC transmission interties to the other grids in the US. Also, if a natural gas fired plant has an interruptible natural gas contract isn't it required to have a reserve oil tank to allow it to generate for a certain number of hours while the gas is curtailed?


You're livin' in the old regulaed world. Nobody keeps fuel oil any more. Consumers don't want to pay for the "insurance"!

Also, if a natural gas fired plant has an interruptible natural gas contract isn't it required to have a reserve oil tank to allow it to generate for a certain number of hours while the gas is curtailed?

I recently did one of my scenic tours of the gas plants of Alberta (this isn't deliberate, it's just that there seem to be gas plants everywhere), and I noticed that every old gas plant I used to work at seems to have a brand-new gas-fired power plant sitting right next to it.

Now, I'm just guessing, but I suspect the gas plant operators and the power plant operators are in communication with each other (by hand signals if nothing else), and in the event of a power crises, the power plant will not cut the supply to the gas plant off, and in the even of a gas crisis the gas plant will not cut the supply to the power plant off. As I say, I'm just guessing, but I think they might have an agreement to that effect.

Having the gas plants that supply gas to the power plants that supply power to the gas plants cut off supply to each other in an emergency, doesn't make a great deal of sense, if you know what I mean? You might need to draw a diagram and use a big red wax crayon to mark X's on it to see the logic. You may want to put the crossed-up diagram in an envelope and mail it to the regulatory authorities so they can see it too. Yes, I am being sarcastic ;)

Regulatory authorities? I thought Tom DeLay and all his cronies ran them out of the state years ago. ?- )

Gee, I had this same discussion with a UT Austin law student at the UT Energy Symposium. I told her that with deregulation would come a case of neglected maintainance, and lo and behold, I was right. What really pissed me off was that she was claiming that deregulation had lower prices and she was on a regulated power supplier (Austin Energy) which mandated 12c/kWh while I was paying 13.3c/kWh for my power up in Dallas (which did experience blackouts, unlike her power), and a surcharge for using less than 600 kWh in a month.

Another part of "deregulation" has been the effort to "privatize" the electric co-ops. They had to sell off their wiring to the separate grid "business" and only maintain their generating plants, which had to "compete".

It isn't actually deregulation, it's regulatory distortion which was put in place by Enron but never repealed in the lege... It's like the Enron zombie still arbitrarily skipping maintenance and hiking your electric bill while trashing reliability.

ERCOT should not exist. Not that it won't cost a lot now to go back to the old scheme, since all that deferred maintenance would have to be done, but IMNSHO that is what Texas should do.

A move that should be implemented immediately in Texas is an intelligent demand-side control system on every customer using market incentives. Electricity should be valued at whatever customers will pay for it, not at what some politician thinks it needs to be in order for themselves to get re-elected. If two large coal plants go down in a storm, then the price of electricity should IMMEDIATELY jump high enough to shed sufficient demand to allow the grid to stay up, regardless of what that "high enough" might be. If poor people need support to survive with that system, then subsidizing them should be a separate function of government. The shedding action should be an automatic action of the customer's meter (sending signals to customer's appliances, and also to the occupants) based solely on the customer's pre-programmed (by simple selection on installation) of their maximum tolerance for high price, including a maximum price at which the customer chooses to have the meter disconnect their service entirely until the price comes back down. At least the grid would remain functional and delivering whatever electricity still remained available, perhaps to designated emergency shelters etc.

This system WILL be required at any rate to survive significant introduction of plug-in electric / hybrid vehicles. Also allows much higer levels of intermittent supply such as wind generation, without any risk to grid stability.

Read my articles on the proper design.

Independent Market for Every Utility Customer - Preliminary Business Case

Independent Market for Every Utility Customer - Part 2 - Market Operation

Independent Market for Every Utility Customer - Part 3 - Alternative Market Operation

Energy Central Blogs - IMEUC - Independent Market for Every Utility Customer

Ahh, free market to the rescue, how texan.

So you'd like to spend lots and lots of money (and time) to embed a resolutely market driven solution everywhere - that's GUARANTEED to have other, unintended consequences (ie like the road system being unable to afford the power cost and all the traffic lights going out across the state, simultaneously).

As opposed to implementing breaks in the interconnections and buffers to make sure the system is not 'complex' but controllable?

You want to couple MORE systems in to this already complex system?

You really haven't grasped the point of the article, have you?

It's not just KISS, it's simplify and decouple, stoopid.

like the road system being unable to afford the power cost and all the traffic lights going out across the state, simultaneously

great example except that would mean all the roads were in a single system--that doesn't sound like the US. I have been in a city when all the traffic lights went down--a valve failed at the Beluga gas generation plant and shut down Anchorage. Traffic stops.

Actually it doesn't mean they are all in a single system - because you've introduced a common factor via their interaction with the pricing mechanism. You've created that single system.

It's highly likely that all traffic light systems would have their price tariff limit set by the same person, to the same value. Probably some arbitrary high value set by a manager somewhere, on a friday. Then prices shoot up in supply shortages and suddenly all the systems are in danger of being tripped into shutdown on peak demand (say a power station goes down) and they can't be changed in time...

The issue isn't the particular example case, it's the complex interactional linkage you've introduced via the proposed system that WILL have unintended consequences and cascade effects - all to worship at the alter of "the market is god". It's kind of the anti-proposal to the thrust of the article's message - hence me pointing up sarcastically how silly it is.

If you want to ration, you ration on NEED and take LOTS of time looking at interactions. Rationing on money is a silly idea that basically guarantees collapse in short order - or did you think those poor neighbourhoods were going to sit back, in the dark, looking out at the affluent neighbourhoods shining light everywhere?

If you want to keep a complex, interrelated system working, one that's on the edges of collapse in the good times, the one thing you DON'T do is consider a free market is a good idea. That reads across to oil too.

I understood your direction. I just don't see Lengould's (he is a Canadian by the way) proposal assigning the same price tariff limits to traffic lights across the board. Individual municipalities are the bottom tier in his hierarchical market management structure and it would seem each municipality would be making its own decisions on the price tariff levels of their purchases, so statewide their assignments to traffic control might not correlate all that closely. I only skimmed his proposal so I might be way off.

I just couldn't help my "inconceivable" quip--it so follows his assertion
a lot of thought has gone into ensuring that every incentive vector under every concievable circumstance

kind of the techie version of the red neck's most famous last words 'hey y'all, watch this!'

I don't think that constant loads like traffic lights would or should buy their power at the spot price.  They are practically the definition of "base load", and ought to be able to get a reasonable fixed price for 24/7 power.

no arguement there. I wonder what sort of safeguards are in place even without a fully market directed system. Insolvent government entities delinquent on power bills...could get dicey.

Going by what happens when storms take out the power here, they would see an improvement in traffic flow.


only if no one is on the road. When the Beluga power plant went down just at the beginning of Anchorage rush hour I gave up on my regular twenty to thirty minute commute home...after and an hour and a half. I'd covered about a quarter of the drive. That was in a little burg of 300,000 people or so--a real city must be a heck of a mess.

Well, our population is similar but we have a higher density. Your road system is very much better. When the traffic lights go out then traffic moves freely. To really cause a snarl up, the best way is to put a traffic policeman in charge, tailbacks out of sight.


The day you have insufficient power in the grid to operate your traffic lights, you can forgetabout anything else operating. That's the ultimate in irrelevance. Are you guys SERIOUSLY proposing that a functioning (NB: critical) municipal government's budget might be so crippled that your worst concern would be that a traffic department which changes from paying $0.10 / kwh flat rate to paying $0.025 / kwh nights and weekends, $0.15 / kwh 8 hrs per day 5 days / week, and an occasional $0.50 / kwh when severe shortages hit might not be able to pay it's electricity bills?

If that Alaska town's traffic problems were caused by increases peak electricity prices, it might have some relevance, but this crap is pure nonsense.

I dunno, just this past week we had a nice test of "public utility" versus "private power provider" in Texas and the public utility had better uptime *and* price.

Market-based approaches seems nice in theory, but the real world said otherwise this time.

is an intelligent demand-side control system on every customer using market incentives.

Thats sound right to me. I'd prefer it if it was slightly less freemarket related, -we might want max rate caps, as everyuser might not be capacble of curtailment on demand. But, the general idea of lots of demand management, with economic incentives strong enough to make selecting to have your equipment demand managed a sensible financial decision, is really the way to go.

From a consumer's perspective, there is little or no difference between a first-world, free market system w/ 100% demand side management, such as that being advocated, and a third-world, ineptly managed regulated system with rolling blackouts -- I am without power.

Consider, if you will, that one of the defining aspects of a first-world existence is a reliable infrastructure, one that I can depend on and take for granted*. If the infrastructure upon which I and others are dependent is based solely on my ability to pay, there is little difference between the first and third world. This will then motivate people to make economic decisions that may not be in societies best interest.

* - note that I am 100% off-grid and therefore bear full responsibility for the reliability of my infrastructure. It's a pain and consumes a fixed amount of my time that I would rather use for other activities.

There are a few problems with this. It would be expensive... computing power is cheap but new appliances, meters and switchgear aren't. Most people aren't going to be interested in this pricing model and depending on the default meter settings will either sit in the dark or be shocked at an insanely high bill.

Also, negative feedback is not sufficient for stability. Economists can just wave that away, but engineers can't. This could happen by accident, but there's also a huge financial incentive to create instability: the spike's extra price is pure profit.

I repeat:

This system WILL be required at any rate to survive significant introduction of plug-in electric / hybrid vehicles. Also allows much higer levels of intermittent supply such as wind generation, without any risk to grid stability.

The concerns above are either a) based on a clear desire for society to revert to pre-technology or b) incomplete analysis of the proposal.

In response:
b1) With this strategy, there is no need to worry about Enron-type "manipulation/creation of volatility" etc. In IMEUC, a lot of thought has gone into ensuring that every incentive vector under every concievable circumstance, is pointed in a direction to benefit society in general and cannot be co-opted by any sub-group for personal gain. If you context that, provide an example.

b2) Overall unit per-kwh prices CANNOT increase with IMEUC, since its entire design is targeted to providing EVERY customer access to the WHOLESALE market (in which presently, large industrials are purchasing their electricity at 1/3 or less what the typical small customer pays at "retail"). In addition to all the other benefits provided, per-kwh prices for small customers WILL fall with IMEUC, BUT the only question is will they fall enough to cover the added cost of the market system and the required response systems?

b3) The key to IMEUC is eliminating the "transaction costs" of individual generating companies dealing with individual retail customers. This has long been the excuse utilities use to charge small retail customers 2 or 3x what they charge large inbdustrial customers.

b4) In the long term, the competitive market system provided for in IMEUC will provide cost benefits to customers. At present, in the regulated system commonly used, we have put utilities in the wierd position that "The higher they can make their costs, the more profit they make". (e.g. their net returns are set by regulators at a fixed "fair return on costs" percentage of their costs. Result is "gold plating" of installations, a well-known phenomenon in the industry, in which I have worked long enough to witness from sevaral angles).

a lot of thought has gone into ensuring that every incentive vector under every concievable circumstance, is pointed in a direction to benefit society in general and cannot be co-opted by any sub-group for personal gain. If you contest that, provide an example.

It is not simply the average retail cost of energy that requires regulation. In sunny Arizona, where the nation's largest nuclear power plant is located, the major utilities’ rate schedules have long been structured so that they diminish the value of independent investments in energy management and solar energy. The structure of these rate schedules has helped to make Arizona’s citizens profligate consumers of electricity, and captives of a distorted energy market. These rate schedules, combined with other schemes, push greater costs into the small business sector. These energy costs are then forwarded to Arizona’s consumers; creating what is essentially a hidden tax.

(Details at: http://ratecrimes.blogspot.com/2009/07/executive-summary.html)

While the majority of Arizona’s energy distribution system is generally not susceptible to cold weather extremes, the state has experienced disruptions in its gas distribution system this winter. Hot, dry Arizona suffers far more during the opposite season. Yet, the rate schedules have long defeated the value of the investments that could diminish Arizona’s communities’ aggregate summer peak demand: investments in energy management, and distributed generation with a large portion of solar (both local and in the desert to the west to better address the thermal lag component of peak demand).

While demand management does have real value, a delivery system controlled by utilities that is not voluntary, essentially inverts the regulatory system; so that rather than the service provider being responsible to the citizens of the community, the citizens are now responsible to, as well as dependent upon, the service provider.

I’m all for an honest accounting, but ‘free markets’ and “separate functions of government” are fictions; especially in regards to energy.

Arizona experienced gas distribution disruption because the cowboys in Texas couldn't keep their end of the pipeline from freezing up. Even if we weren't ground zero for nutjobs, there still won't be any gas coming out of that pipe.

If somebody understands "avoided costs" can they explain it to me?

For more energy saving information, check out what hip hop star Mega Watt does around his house: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUNISl0mr5g

That is the only video featuring a rapper that I can recall watching to the end.  Usually I'm done in under 20 seconds.

How does a 10,000sf house have anything to do with "energy savings"?! Like everyone else who is "livin' large" he can conveniently ignore the embedded energy of his toys and the societal damage caused by his lifestlye/footprint.

of course this is only a spoof on Cribs. I think the video is really funny, and I am also learning a bit on what I could do around the house to save on my energy bill. I don't think having a mansion has anything to do with it.

There is a simpler explanation here: political corruption.

Unexpected cold spell? The record for Texas is 23 degrees BELOW ZERO in 1933. It did not get this cold.

Companies cutting corners on maintenance? There is an obvious solution for this: Massive contractual penalties for failure to meet performance.

Quirk that regulators didn't know about natural gas cutoffs to electric power plants? These things are in the contracts. In any event it would have been discussed in the trade journals in 2004 after the Northeast situation.

This post didn’t talk about compression. Compressor stations move the gas along the line. Lack of compression probably caused some of the problems. The compressors are driven normally by gas turbines sometimes by three phase motors. Gas turbines gobble gas and if the pressure is not there the turbines can not reach their horsepower. Low horsepower low compression. I guess if the pressure is too low the turbines won’t start at all.

The compressors do not run continuously. They “pack the line” which means the compressors pump the line to a certain pressure and then stop or idle until the pressure bleeds down and then they start up and pack the line again. One interesting problem I had the chance to work on was how long would it take five compressors to pack a 150 mile line. The compressors all don’t run at the same time. Two may be running and then a third comes on line and then a forth until the line is packed. This is dependent on the demand for gas. One of the factors considered in the design of a compressor station is how long will it take to pressure the line. Longer times to pressure the line means less gas pressure and flow downstream.

There is a long stretch of highway between El Paso and San Antonio-I10. Around mile marked 287 on the north side of the expressway there is a long stretch of wind turbines. The last time I drove the highway the turbines on the north side were turning and turning and turning. About ten or twelve miles further toward San Antonio, there is a long string of wind turbines on the south side of the expressway. These turbines were stalled. It appears the wind blows in currents striking some of the turbines on one side on the road and as the currents twist and turn miss the turbines on the south side.

We had gas outages in Tucson because of compressor failure in Texas. Too much demand for gas and nobody pushing it to the end of the line.

Would this be the same, if the natural gas pipelines had electrical compression, which I thought these had?

I ran across (1) 26000 hp motor driven compressor. The reason for this compressor was the company had a sweat heart deal with the local power company which they owned. Most of the time compressors will be driven by gas turbines-Solar or GE. They do gobble the gas and are very sensitive to air intake temperature and gas pressure. Cold air good for turbines. Hot air bad.

All work is not the same. Electricity is high quality energy. Natural gas is low quality energy. Electricity costs more to produce.

Empress Extraction Facility

The Empress Complex has eleven re-compressors, gas turbine engines drive three, and while the remaining eight are driven by large electric motors. There are three 35,000 hp compressors, two 28,000 h.p. units, two 11,000 h.p. units and one 54,000hp unit. The Empress plant is one of the largest single industrial consumers of electric power in Alberta.

This is the one of the largest gas plants in North America.

I was talking to the manager of the Empress Complex one time, and he was quite proud of himself because he had negotiated a negative price for the electricity the plant used. The power company was paying him to use its power. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause.

However, there was a reason for the Santa Clause in the contract. The gas plant was perfectly capable of running on its own backup generators without taking anything from the grid at all. However, if the electric utility got into trouble and needed power, the gas plant agreed to shut down its electric compressors and run on its gas turbines alone, fire up its backup generators, dump power into the grid, and bail the utility out of the crisis.

This was potentially worth a lot of money to the utility. They once had one of their main powerplants trip while California was having one of its power crises, and it cost them about $5 million per hour to outbid California utilities for power until they got their plant back up.

Other plants I worked at would run on commercial power most of the year, but during lighting season they would disconnect from the grid and run on their own generators until lightning season was over. They couldn't afford the downtime a lightning strike on the power lines would cause.

Who says DSM doesn't work?

DSM? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association?

Yes, it does work, as long as you can persuade people to take their medication.

"All work is not the same. Electricity is high quality energy. Natural gas is low quality energy. Electricity costs more to produce." - idontno

Perhaps . . . if flexibility were the only measure. However, availability, proximity, and final use often make gas a "higher quality" fuel. Still, electricity doesn't cause entire buildings, or even subdivisions, to explode.

I had been planning to install a Generac propane-powered generator for power outages, assuming the gas would stay pressured up when the grid went down. Based on this situation, I may have to reconsider that approach.

I'd suggest a 5 to 6Kw solar PV system with inverter and battery backup, if you wish you could even grid tie it.
Yes, you do need to maintain your batteries but chances are you'd get at a minimum a good 25 to 30 years of service out of such a system. Plus you have less of a fire or gas explosion hazard and zero chance of CO poisoning. Depending on where you live you might be eligible for tax rebates and feed in tariffs. Heck if you really want to go full monty you could rewire your home for low voltage DC appliances and LED lighting.

Best hopes for more decentralized off grid electricity and less dependence on fossil fuels.


Propane U R OK since you have your own tank, assuming you can afford to
(re) fill it, perhaps you meant Nat Gas.

yes - natural gas. There's a pipeline close by in the neighborhood. Didn't plan on having a propane tank in the backyard. May not even be able to have an above ground tank in the city but it's worth looking into since that could be my backup. As for solar with battery backup, I do have concerns about accidental "mixing" of battery acid and kids. As I've been going through the options for resiliency, it seems that most every option has safety concerns. Also, house siting isn't good since the south side faces the street. HOA won't allow it - yet.

As for solar with battery backup, I do have concerns about accidental "mixing" of battery acid and kids.

As a dad I can tell you that as excuses go that has to be one of the lamest I've heard to date... There are plenty of hazards in any modern house that are just as if not more dangerous. Not to mention you could always get sealed or gel batteries. Heck you could even put a lock on the battery cabinet. Sheesh! There may be perfectly valid reasons for not going with solar, this really ain't one of them.

If you are thinking about using vented lead acid batteries, your local building code might require the battery bank be installed in a closed cabinet with a vent to the outside for removal of hydrogen which might result from over charging. If you go this direction, you could simply lock the cabinet to keep the curious kids away from the nasty acid...

E. Swanson

This is a very interesting story.

Operators of power systems must be prepared for rotating blackouts. The alternative is loss of control and complete blackout. Situations with shortage of generation or transmission resources cannot be completely avoided.

Reports on disruption of service are very important sources for improved security of power system operation. Much more has been learned from the study of real cases than from advanced computer studies. Even after this story there will be a lesson to learn when a full report on the case is available.

According to Dallas News insufficient public information was a problem. Some comments also complaint that hospitals were disconnected. Rotating blackouts are very simple types of demand side management. There is room for considerable improvements.

The story demonstrates how cold weather causes negative feedback from power plants and gas infrastructure not being designed for low temperatures. I also noticed somewhere that Texas has a high share of electrical heating which just amplifies the negative feedback.

Some comments blame the deregulation process. Both monopoly systems and market based system can be poorly designed. In a competitive system the responsibility for security of operation and security of supply must be very well defined. Service disruptions cannot be avoided, even in a well designed system, but the consequences of capacity shortages can be minimized.

Wednesday week ago was a repeat of what happened over 20 years ago (I forgot the exact year). 4 F in Austin where I was. Before deregulation.

Several coal plants "froze up" in the record cold. Natural gas curtailments at several places in the state. City of Austin (not yet Austin Energy) burned heavy oil at Holly (and Seagrove ?) Power Plants and diverted natural gas to Decker (newer, no oil back-up) and exported as much power as they could.

Afterwards, Texas Utilities and others promised to improve their coal fired plants so they would not freeze up again.


Observation: Coal plant outages are not correlated with cold weather but with cold weather plus strong winds.

Natural gas curtailments are correlated with cold weather.

Heavy fuel oil (or lighter oil for CCGT) stored on-site as a back-up to natural gas used to be standard operating procedure, but is apparently quite rare today. LPG would be an acceptable alternative.

Nice write-up Gail. One thing to add: Some places (west Texas) also lost water. Energy shortages led to shut down of pumping stations, and reservoir levels got low enough that the water wasn't safe to drink.

Loss of water is always a concern when electricity goes out, especially in cities where water has to be pumped up to tall buildings. I don't think people think about this as much as they should. A week without water would be a real problem most places.

This goes both ways, as well.. in NYC, anyway, I was told that the city would have to be evacuated if there was a serious water disruption, as Electricity Generation is dependent on it, not to mention firefighting and certain other fundamental systems.

Ultimately, there are too many things to think about.. it's not just that 'people should be thinking about each of these things', but that we've created such a complex and fragmented system of systems.. that there is just far too much that we all 'ought' to be responsible for if we were to keep it all under proper vigilance.

Just making sure my junk-mail isn't exposing me to ID-theft takes me more time than I ever spent on homework.. not that that's a high bar to cross..

Water supplies to New York City (up to 6 floors up) are as perfectly bullet-proof as humanly possible.

Gravity feed rainfall from Upstate New York, from undeveloped and non-intensively farmed land.

They built a 3rd water tunnel to increase pressure and now any one tunnel can fail and the city can still get enough water.

Note "Start date - 1970"

Best Hopes for Old Fashioned Engineering,


Not to be too Snarky, but.... I was told that info from a NYC DEP- engineer as we stood INside Tunnel #3 in 1999, 600' under RedHook Brooklyn (so 550'+ below sea-level) in a 16' Rock tunnel. I was shooting a video of the construction of the Brooklyn Section. (And I lived in one of those 6-floor coldwater flat apartment buildings at the time, too.)

The reason I heard for building it was also, and mainly that they had no way to go in and do status checks on #1 (1918) or #2 (1937). These engineers were highly concerned over the fact that there was no way to shut them off and do repairs or quality checks, and the risk to the city that some section of over pressured, water-fractured granitic gneiss was going to compromise this otherwise very stable system, and leave the big apple with spots..

So I agree that the design is Brooklyn Tough.. but not completely bulletproof, sorry to say. (But it was a great treat to be able to see such an amazing project.. and the Sandhogs and Engineers were some of my favorite people.. it's a different tribe)

Also, the valves for #1 and #2 were built into the tunnel so that they could not be inspected or maintained without draining the tunnel. #3 has valve chambers so that is not true of that tunnel. Draining the tunnel (w/o #3) would not leave enough water for the people of NYC. With #3, they can. Phase #2 of tunnel #3 (the most critical phase) was supposed to be activated last year.

Prior to that NYC was much more vulnerable, but today all but Staten Island can get by with two of the three tunnels (#1 + #2 or just #3 by itself). All three are "robust" designs, and now NYC only needs two.

Without #3, NYC was vulnerable to "low probability, high impact" faults in it's water systems. They are spending $6 billion for what will be a permanent fix (on human civilization time scales). This is precisely the sort of investments we need and yet do not make.


Staten Island has a single tunnel spur. I think the original plans (from teenage memory) called for a duplicate, but not to be.

Phase #3, not yet started, will increase pressure in parts of the Bronx and Queens, but will also provide an alternative path to Phase #1 of Tunnel #3 to Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the spur tunnel to Staten Island. (And an alternative to Tunnel #2 in eastern Bronx) Truly a "belt and suspenders" solution with redundancy within Tunnel #3, not to mention Tunnels #1 and #2 (solid lines).

Phase #4, not yet started, will bypass the lower Hillview Reservoir to Kensico and increase water pressure. There are two aquaducts/tunnels between Hillview and Kensico. If one failed, the reduced population of NYC and water rationing plus the water stored in the lower reservoir should allow repairs. But Phase #4 is a better solution. And by increasing water pressure, will save energy as well.


Best Hopes for more "Tunnel #3s",


I checked and the last connections to Phase #2 will be completed in 2013 and #4 will likely be started before #3 and under a different name, Kensico-City Tunnel.

My proposals for HV DC lines along rail ROWs also provide improved redundancy. Texas already has two small HV DC connections with the rest of the world (@ Beaumont and with Mexico).

If Texas could have imported 4 GW from as far away as Palo Verde nuclear power plant (West of Phoenix AZ), South Louisiana (plenty of NG and generation to spare, offshore NG does not freeze up in cold weather) and Oklahoma & Arkansas (limited surplus there), there would have been no blackouts of firm demand.

Best Hopes,


The blackouts, dropouts, spikes, brownouts, etc. due to neglected maintenance and poor operating practices in order to minimize costs of generation and distribution of electrical power are causing higher costs for uninteruptible power supplies, power conditioning equipment, repairs of HVAC equipment, repairs of electrical appliances, and replacement of electronics.

I find it a bit remarkable how many comments are geared to more layers of complexity to prevent/solve this issue. Methinks that our systems have reached the point where they are becoming unmanagable in scope, complexity, and cost. We have certainly reached a WTF moment financially, but WE CAN FIX IT. Just make the grid 'smarter', adapt our systems to resist the effects of climate, more, bigger production and transmission, better regulation, blah,blah,blah.

It's time we adapt to limits, live within our means, power down or be forced to.

I agree, time to get off the Techno Merry-Go-Round. Bigger is not better. Start taking it all down, not making it bigger. Simple, give up the BAU. HVDC is the Bridge to nowhere.

Small is beautiful. Power Down.

The Martian.

There are infinite more power problems to come for the capitali$t system. That's because they want to sell power for the highest price, so they will work together to insure regular shortages to pump up the price.

Time to decide which: dump capitali$m or dump all your electric appliances.

That’s not capitalism, that’s Enron.

I am a free market guy. But electric power is not what one would call a free market. In order to be free one has to be able to move to another seller freely. If there are only one or two sellers there really can be no real competition. I am of favor of government utilities such as the TVA or Bonneville power. They are essentially power marketeers. My local city owned power gives me power at .o56/kwh.