Texas lessons – the interconnected utility ecosystem

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The February extreme cold weather snap in Texas highlighted the interconnectedness of the electric and gas systems, says US energy policy expert Beth Garza.

Speaking in Enlit Europe’s grid series webinar on resilience and flexibility, Garza said what began as a major winter storm with traffic problems and snarled highways turned into an electricity problem for about a week and then into a water crisis for another week.

And the financial ramifications were short payments to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) as system operator approaching $2.9 billion, which in turn have not been paid on into the economy.

“It has highlighted the tremendous interconnection between our electricity and natural gas systems, how dependent they are on each other and how ill prepared they were to interact with each other,” said Garza, Senior Fellow at the policy research R Street Institute and former Independent Market Monitor for the ERCOT wholesale markets.

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She explains the sequence of events: insufficient supply to meet demand, which led to forced curtailments of load, which in turn impacted the ability of the natural gas systems to deliver gas to the power plants that needed it.

“That interconnectedness was front and centre as part of the problem, I believe.”

On top of this issue around resilience was the flexibility in the system, with the forced curtailments in large blocks of customers such that when the curtailment was met, there was insufficient load to rotate the outages to other customers.

“That left some customers like me without electricity for 80 hours. For me that flexibility is key for improved resilience and reliability.”

The further interconnection to the water system in the February storm was the occurrence of broken water mains and burst pipes with little or no insulation in homes left without heat in the power outages – and, notably, in which smart water metering proved crucial in the utility response.

That also raises the question across the utility ecosystem of standards for weatherisation – or as Garza terms it, winterisation – of infrastructure for infrequent but extreme cold weather events as a component of resiliency.

“I believe all of [the regular winter] actions were taken but they were just insufficient, given the depth and breadth of the very cold weather we experienced,” said Garza.