Microgrid Knowledge – Texas on the Verge of an Energy Catastrophe: How Microgrids are Helping

The electric grid has been around for nearly 140 years, but it’s yet to overcome its biggest nemesis: the weather. Texas is showcasing that point this week as it suddenly rivals California in proving the need for microgrids.

What happened in Texas and how bad is it?

Very bad. Struggling to keep the grid from collapse, the grid operator has instituted rolling blackouts causing millions of Texans to lose electricity as bitter cold sweeps the state. Meant to last minutes, the power outages are elongating into hours and possibly days.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 4.3 million electric customers lacked electricity brought about as what could go wrong did go wrong.

It all started when severe and unusual cold caused power demand to rise as households consumed more energy to try to stay warm. The system set a new winter peak of demand of 69,222 MW.

Big power capitulates to the cold

Then around 11 p.m  Sunday night in rapid progression large power plants began to trip offline, which they are more apt to do under severe demand and in extreme cold. But the number that failed was staggering. The system lost 34,000 MW, most of them thermal or nuclear plants. But some wind farms also lost productivity as turbines succumbed to icing.

The system reached a point where “electric demand was really just exceeding available supply,” said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at ERCOT, the grid operator for most of Texas.

At this point the reliability of the entire grid was in jeopardy. If an electric grid goes out of balance, it risks wide-scale blackouts. So to reduce demand, ERCOT instituted its highest energy emergency alert, which called upon utilities to begin controlled blackouts. These are temporary power outages, generally lasting minutes, meant to ease pressure on the grid.

However, some Texans are experiencing much longer power outages for various reasons. There are the usual storm related mishaps — ice and wind taking down distribution lines. Or, in other cases, as Woodfin noted, utilities are shutting down circuits to non-critical customers to ensure hospitals and other emergency services receive power.

Meanwhile, ERCOT continues to struggle to keep the grid in balance as power plant operators work to bring their units back on line.

Exactly what went wrong and when will become clear in the coming days and weeks as the Texas power system is put under the microscope.

One thing is immediately apparent. Microgrids are helping ease the problem, but Texas doesn’t have enough of them.

How microgrids help grids

“This is another great example of where microgrids can not only provide resiliency for their respective customers but also alleviate some of the load on the grid, allowing the utilities to maintain their own system reliability,” said Michael Bakas, executive vice president at Ameresco.

He noted that if there were more microgrids – if they reached a critical mass – they could become a larger resource for utilities to call upon during periods of potential disruption.

“The utilities could reach out and request the microgrids to island. That would reduce the utilities’ load requirements and could potentially allow them to avoid rolling outages. This is a good example of where microgrids and utilities can co-exist and benefit from each other,” he said.

Or as put by Mike Byrnes, senior vice president Veolia North America: “At times of grid stress the resiliency and societal benefits of microgrids really shine through.”

Byrnes, whose company focuses on microgrids that use combined heat and power, said that such systems “will keep the local microgrid customers running while at the time relieving stress on the grid benefiting everyone. It is yet another reason that public policy should encourage microgrids.”

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