Albany Times Union “Could a Texas-size power failure hit New York?”

On February 17, 2021 Rick Karlin at the Albany, NY Times Union wrote an article comparing the Texas electrical grid and the New York grid relative to the power failures in Texas caused by extreme cold.  I agree with his conclusion that New York’s grid is sufficiently different than Texas so that something similar is unlikely to happen in New York.  However, I disagree with the experts that he interviewed that believe the primary problem going forward is the transmission system.  Instead, I think that trying to meet the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) zero-emissions mandate by 2040 for the electric system is the biggest challenge to future electric system reliability.

I have written extensively on implementation of the CLCPA closely because its implementation affects my future as a New Yorker.  I have described the law in general, evaluated its feasibility, estimated costs, described supporting regulations, listed the scoping plan strategies, summarized some of the meetings and complained that its advocates constantly confuse weather and climate.  The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.

Could a Texas-size power failure hit New York

Mr. Karlin interviewed a number of experts who argued that a mass failure of the state’s power grid was unlikely for a number of reasons. However, he went on to say “that doesn’t mean Empire State residents don’t have other threats to worry about.”  First, I will comment on the statements from the experts and then I will argue that their transmission threats are secondary to what I think is the primary threat for a future blackout.

I agree that one of the Texas problems is that their power grid has relatively few links to other transmission systems.  Karlin quoted Luigi Vanfretti, a professor of electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who said “It’s about the ability to route the power”.  In this line of thought, if one state has a shortfall, electricity can easily be moved from another state.  Nick Bassill, a meteorologist and director of research and development at the University at Albany’s Center Of Excellence in Weather and Climate Analytics claimed that “Neighboring Oklahoma was also hit with record cold and snow but they didn’t have the mass outages Texas did since they could easily get power from other states”.  However, since the time of the article it became clear that neighboring grids were having similar problems and their own outages.  In the final analysis I believe that this is not the root cause of the problem.

Karlin pointed out a difference between Texas and New York is that Texas power plants “operate with looser regulations compared to New York, particularly when it comes to the Empire State’s stringent rules about having certain levels of capacity and spare fuel”.  He explained that:

“Power plants in New York have to demonstrate a certain maximum capacity, or the amount of power they can produce running at full steam, even though they may only rarely have to do so. These requirements are enforced through credits that can be sold in a capacity market, which Texas doesn’t have. There’s more.  In New York City, for instance, gas plants, which typically use either gas or oil, must have backup supplies of oil in case there is a gas line disruption or shortage.”

Another claimed difference is that Texas is heavily reliant on natural gas and wind whereas New York has a more diversified energy supply.  Although some have blamed the lack of wind production during the outage as a primary driver “most experts contacted by the Times Union said the stuck turbines were minimal compared to the frozen gas infrastructure”. “The gas pipes freezing was key,” said Vanfretti.  In New York Karlin explained that:

“Thirty nine percent of New York state’s power comes from fossil fuels meaning the plants can burn gas or oil (gas has been in favor lately due to low prices).  Another 22 percent is hydropower and about 30 percent is nuclear, as of 2019. Wind was 3 percent as of 2019.”

Karlin also explained that “Texas isn’t built for blizzards”.  Clearly “homes as well as gas line infrastructure in Texas aren’t designed or built for snow and cold, just as New York isn’t built for extreme heat.”  He went on to say that:

As temperatures plummeted, Texans turned their electric heaters or gas furnaces to the maximum, putting extra demand on gas lines that would normally feed power plants, leading to rolling blackouts.  “When you’re plunging down close to zero in northern Texas, suddenly there is a huge demand for heating,” said UAlbany’s Bassill, meaning that there may not be enough for power plants. “It’s the worst of both worlds.”

Finally, Karlin argued that New York’s bigger threat “likely lies with the state’s creaky system of power lines – many of which are above ground and vulnerable to storm damage”.  He explained that:

Venfretti believes the outdated transmission system, along with what he said is the primitive 1980s-era hardware used to monitor and control many power line substations, are among the biggest vulnerabilities.  The push for clean renewable energy is driving innovation in power generation but the transmission part of the equation is lagging, said Venfretti. It’s like a person buying a shiny new Mercedes to drive down a crumbling pot-holed road.  “The last thing people think about is the road they are going to drive their Mercedes on,” he said.

My Take on the Differences Between New York and Texas

I posted an article on the Texas situation and its implications for New York energy policy on February 18.  One distinction between this article and my analysis and a couple of others I found is that we addressed the systemic cause more than the specifics of this energy problem.  Ultimately the problem boils down to the importance of reliability.  In 2001 the draft New York energy policy stated: “Greater diversity in the types of fuel used for energy production could benefit all market participants, ensuring adequate fuel supplies and dampening price volatility.”  Everyone in the energy planning process at that time took as a fundamental principle that diversity meant a balanced and diverse portfolio with different kinds of dispatchable electric energy: coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, and hydro.  The greater diversity mantra included different ways to transport oil and coal including railroads and barges as well as the ability to have fuels that could be stored for use as needed.  I believe that the New York energy planners who incorporated that mantra developed an energy system that is much more resilient to extreme weather than the Texas system.

The  systemic problem is the failure of Texas to include capacity payment in their market.  If the system is unwilling to pay for the power needed during rare events then the inevitable result will be a blackout.  It is incredible to me that a similar problem occurred in 2011 and that steps were not taken to fix them in ten years.   A former electric utility Planning Engineer has described his impression of the problems that lead to the debacle.  He agrees that the particular problem is that Texas only pays for the energy produced.  As a result, there is no incentive to develop the capacity needed for rare extreme conditions so when it was needed it simply was not there.  Importantly, he believes that the purpose of the payment for energy only market strategy was “to aid the profitability of intermittent wind and solar resources and increase their penetration levels.”

It appears to me that there is a shift to the same mis-guided policy priorities now underway in New York.  Planning Engineer explains that “Having a strong technical knowledge of the power system along with some expertise in finance, rates and costs can help one see the folly of a variety of policies adopted to support many of today’s wind and solar projects. Very few policy makers possess anything close to the skill sets needed for such an evaluation. Furthermore, while policy makers could listen to experts, their voices are drowned out by those with vested interests in wind and solar technology who garner considerable support from those ideologically inclined to support renewables regardless of impacts.”  This describes New York’s Climate Action Council and advisory panel Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act process perfectly.

Karlin interviewed Gavin Donohue, president and CEO of the Independent Power Producers of New York, who explained that New York’s current diversity of power sources provides a measure of resiliency.  Note, however, that when New York outlawed the use of coal at power plants they eliminated a source of power that used a fuel that could be stored on-site and stockpiled for emergencies.  The Climate Act eliminates the use of fossil fuel by 2040 further reducing balance, diversity, and flexibility to handle weather related load peaks.  It is not clear what will be needed to replace those attributes in the future.

Karlin also noted extreme weather events such as the derecho windstorms that took out power for several days in the Capital Region last fall, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the massive ice storm that in 1998 left eastern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and a sliver of northern New York without power for weeks. While that wasn’t due to problems in power plants or a lack of alternate fuels, a diverse and balanced energy system is better able to address the impact of miles and miles of downed power lines.

Up to this point I only had minor issues with the article but then he wrote:

Others stress that redundancy going forward should be in renewables, given the climate havoc that greenhouse gases have caused.  “We need to be moving as swiftly as possible to 100% renewable energy,” remarked Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY.

Contrary to popular impression it is extremely unlikely that weather events associated with changes in the climate observed to date can be attributed to greenhouse gas impacts.  Advocates constantly confuse weather and climate and every time I have examined a weather event supposedly associated with climate change I have not been able to find a climatic change effect.  Following the usual pattern, there already are claims that the power system impacts were somehow due to climate change and not inadequate planning for this kind of extreme weather event.  Ten years ago, in February 2011, there was a similar extreme cold snap and blackouts also resulted because “coal and natural gas plants and electric utility companies didn’t have the resources to maintain service.”  If these conditions happened ten years ago then changes in climate did not increase the need for planning to meet events of the recent past.

Even more problematic is the suggestion that “moving as swiftly as possible to 100% renewable energy” will make society more resilient because there will be more redundancy.  The fact is that calling wind and solar diverse and redundant is a gross mis-characterization.  Solar energy is not diverse when every single solar facility in the state goes off-line at night.  Wind energy is not redundant when the winds are calm at night.  I believe that a comprehensive analysis of the New York joint frequency distribution of wind and solar energy resource availability is needed to determine the worst-case reliability needs scenario.  It is imperative to consider wind and solar availability over the same period and given that Texas extreme weather had a 10-year reoccurrence period I would say that the analysis should consider a minimum of ten years.  When the wind and solar resource availabilities are known then, and only then, can the wind, solar and energy storage resources necessary to prevent cold weather blackouts be established.  This has not been done.

Ultimately the problem is that the worst-case wind and solar renewable resource availability period is rare.  Keep in mind that New York’s Climate Act intends to reduce all fossil fuel emissions so heating and transportation will also have to be electrified.  That means that all the smart planning in the world is not going to be able to shave peak loads much if any.  If the worst-case resource availability period is associated with a period of high energy use then the electric system will be stressed.  In order to be able to provide adequate power during those periods will require expensive energy storage solutions which have not been identified in the Climate Act implementation process.

Conclusion

For the most part I agree with the conclusions in Karlin’s article. Up until this time the chances of extreme winter weather causing an electric energy shortage in New York similar to Texas are essentially nil.  Energy planners in State agencies, the Power Pool and at the utilities were committed to preventing it by developing an electric energy system with different kinds of dispatchable electric energy, developing on-site fuel storage with inventories able to cover extreme cases and enabling transport and delivery alternatives. Their foresight and commitment have given us a resilient electric system.

However, under the Climate Act everything changes when wind and solar replace fossil fuels.  The article did not mention that one reason that Texas does not have a capacity market is that payment for energy only was to aid the profitability of intermittent wind and solar resources and increase their penetration levels.  In New York’s electric market regulators are wrestling with a market design that can provide the appropriate signal for investors to provide power during the rare worst-case weather conditions that caused the Texas power failures.  That will be an experiment that may or not may be successful.

The experts interviewed believe that problems with the transmission system will be the biggest future vulnerability.  I disagree because I believe that reliance on just wind and solar during worst-case weather conditions is going to be a much bigger problem.  The fact is that there are inherent advantages to fossil fuels that cannot be easily overcome with intermittent and diffuse wind and solar.  At one time the New York energy planning process was more concerned about reliability and affordability for New York ratepayers than catering to ideological activists whose precautionary fears of potential climate change impacts override consideration of unintended reliability outcomes and costs.  I conclude that a Texas energy debacle is currently unlikely today but inevitable if New York’s Climate Act is implemented as currently mandated.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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