Op-ed on rolling blackouts: It’s economics, not politics, sustaining generation during polar vortices and such

Photo of Martha's Task offices, Bartlesville, OK, courtesy of Laura Summers

By Rod Walton, content director for Power Engineering and POWERGEN+

Hello PE readers, I typically take my stories posted here and then share them via social media. This time I’m doing it backwards.

I wrote this up for my personal Facebook after seeing so many posts blaming this or that generation resource for the rolling blackouts hitting the U.S. south and midwest. As you know, system operations like MISO, SPP and ERCOT are cutting power for hours at a time so it can match demand to supply during this incredible cold streak.

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It was written to share with friends who are not experts in the industry, but then neither am I compared to you, the industry professional. It may be oversimplified, but hopefully it contains clarity and truth. Here is my FB commentary:

Parks and Recreation.

“I’ve seen a few of my Facebook friends blame clean energy resources such as frozen wind turbines in Texas as cause for the rolling power outages. As a guy who has covered energy for 13 years, I can tell you that is not the real problem.

“The real issue is economics and supply and demand balances. Electricity cannot be stored or saved in a tank on any utility-scale level right now, so it flows and flows until it is consumed or grounded. Utilities must plan based on long-developed and accurate forecasts to balance load and demand. They don’t have capacity to keep gas in the tank, so to speak.

“Power plants are giant things with millions of parts which must move in tandem. Few of them can just fire up and down at will, so they operate at a certain percentage capacity for a period of time, then ratcheted up or down as need be. Those moves take time.Right now we have households hoarding as much heat as they can, and furnaces or heating elements are working overtime. This pulls from the grid, which in turns is powered by the generators at the plant.

“Those supply scenarios don’t turn on a dime. Utilities must plan ahead and spend millions in capital to meet the demand they forecast way out ahead. Why does a grocery store run out of bread and toilet paper? Because they plan their inventories way out in front, then a virus or an election or just some rumor about Revelations unfolding happens, and fearful residents buy up and hoard. Thus, the shortages. And this cold streak is an unprecedented event, so it puts an unforeseen strain on the grid. It is not the utility’s fault, nor any particular power resource such as coal, nuclear, gas, wind or solar. It’s just economics, plus human behavior.

“We need it all — fossil, nuclear and other zero-carbon resources. Carbon emissions and climate impact are real. Balance is key. Politics are not.”

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering, POWERGEN International and the virtual POWERGEN+ series, which resumes Wednesday and Thursday at www.powergenplus.com. He is a 13-year veteran covering energy both as a newspaper reporter, business editor and events content director. Walton can be reached at 918-831-9177 and rod.walton@clarionevents.com).

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