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What can we learn in Minnesota from the Texas blackouts?

Published February 19, 2021

As we are well aware in Minnesota, frigid temperatures have recently descended upon much of the country — in many instances posing a real danger to those without access to reliable heat. This danger has been felt most acutely in Texas, where millions lost power, and some have died because the cold has rendered many of Texas’s energy-generating facilities inoperable.

There is no question that the situation unfolding in Texas is tragic and demands an immediate and thorough investigation. As Minnesotans react to this alarming situation, it is important to understand the facts about Texas’s utility crisis — particularly if we are to learn from them when shaping energy policy in our own state.

Here are a few background facts about Texas’s utilities infrastructure:

  • Among all U.S. states, Texas is the largest energy producer and consumer in the country, and the only state to use its own power grid.
  • The Texas grid is run by an independent, membership-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which is responsible for managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.
  • ERCOT is subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature. Because Texas uses its own, intrastate power grid, ERCOT operates outside the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Early indicators suggest that all sources of power generation in Texas have been affected by the cold. The weather’s impact on the state’s natural gas infrastructure has been particularly devastating because Texans rely largely on natural gas for power and heat generation during periods of peak usage (such as a major cold weather event). Quite simply, many energy generating facilities in Texas were designed to withstand hot weather events typical of Texas summers, but not the atypical cold weather event currently affecting the state. This is true of both fossil fuel facilities and renewable energy facilities. For example, many of Texas’s natural gas facilities were not designed to withstand “freeze-off” events, where the frozen liquid inside wells, pipes, and valves prevent instruments from working properly and block gas flow. Further, many Texas wind turbines were installed without cold weather packages, which are commonly included in wind turbines installed in colder climates.

ERCOT published a February 18, 2021 news release confirming that, as of that date, “a little over 40,000 MW of generation remains on forced outage due to this winter weather event.”  Of that 40,000 MW of forced outage,  “23,500 MW is thermal generation [e.g., natural gas, coal, and nuclear generation] and the rest is wind and solar.” This news release follows other releases on February 17th and 15th that also noted that the cold had impacted natural gas, wind, and other power generation facilities.

So what can we learn from this in Minnesota?

The Texas crisis presents an important learning opportunity that Minnesota utilities and energy stakeholders can learn from here at home. This is particularly important in an era when climate change has caused extreme weather events to become more common. For us to best learn from this event, it is important to consider some differences between Minnesota’s energy infrastructure and that of Texas.

Unlike Texas, Minnesota is part of a large, midcontinent grid (MISO), meaning we share energy produced here with neighboring states and vice versa. This allows states to distribute the load more effectively in the time of crisis. As an example, just this week Minnesota utilities supported southern portions of MISO affected by the same extreme cold affecting Texas through voluntary load control programs.

Also, Minnesota’s largest utilities are directly regulated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of Minnesota and are subject to regulatory processes that require careful planning. The PUC can also require utilities to install redundancies protective equipment in case of bad weather and can ensure that utilities will be able to recover the costs of these investments. This does not mean that a catastrophic event could never happen in Minnesota, but, hopefully, it means Minnesota utilities will be better prepared to respond to one if and when it occurs. 

Minnesota’s current reliance on wind energy is comparable to that of Texas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Minnesota’s electricity generation (as of 2019) came from around 33% coal, 25% nuclear, 19% wind, and 18% natural gas, with the rest attributable to solar energy, biomass, and conventional hydropower. (By comparison, as noted above, Texas’s electricity generation as of 2019 came from around 50% natural gas, 20% coal, 17% wind, and 10% nuclear.) Minnesota Power, the Duluth-based utility providing energy to many of the coldest corners of the state, pulls roughly 30% of the power on its grid from wind energy and does so while maintaining reliability in all weather for its customers, including large mining and paper industries with 24/7 power demand.

Finally, it is no secret that Minnesota regularly experiences low temperatures that are far colder than those recently hitting Texas. Just as Texas endured record setting low temperatures in the single digits, much of Minnesota experienced low temperatures far below zero — as low as 17 below in the Twin Cities and 50 below near Ely. Despite our existing reliance on wind generation and far colder temperatures, Minnesota has not experienced rolling blackouts or widespread power outages during this latest cold snap (with the exception of a brief outage affecting the unregulated utility serving Moorhead). Unlike energy generating facilities installed in Texas, facilities in Minnesota are built to withstand the extreme cold we are accustomed to experiencing here. In fact, Minnesota wind turbines produce, on average, more electricity during the winter months than at other times of the year.

Despite Minnesota’s relative preparedness for cold weather events, the Texas crisis has caused some to question whether Minnesotans could face a similar crisis in the future as we shift to more renewable energy resources. (Some politicians and pundits have blamed Texas’s infrastructure failures on frozen wind turbines without also discussing impacts on coal, nuclear, and natural gas facilities.) No doubt, questions about the reliability of wind turbines and solar panels will be raised in Integrated Resource Planning (IRP) and Integrated Distribution Planning (IDP) processes currently underway in Minnesota, as well as in legislative debates over the 100% Clean Energy Bill currently making its way through the Minnesota House and Senate. In both the regulatory and legislative contexts, it will be important for utilities, regulators, stakeholders, and legislators to consider all the facts underlying the Texas crisis. The question we should focus on is not whether Minnesota can maintain grid reliability with a much cleaner energy mix, but how Minnesota can and should prepare for all types of extreme weather events in light of that mix.

We at CUB look forward to being part of that discussion.

Author: Brian Edstrom

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