Opinion: Texas’ grid vulnerability endangers the entire nation
By Ed Hirs
The Texas electricity disaster laid bare the corroded latticework of the state’s electric grid, and it exposed the fact that Texas’ leaders have no concept of their responsibility to voters, the state or the nation.
Their failure poses a risk not just to Texans, but to national security.
The Texas electricity market was not built for the consumer. The costs to consumers from the latest fiasco are dozens of lives lost and more than $140 billion — $50 billion from ERCOT charges the week of February 14 for which consumers received only 60 percent of the service demanded, and an estimated $90 billion in property and casualty losses. In legislative hearings, Bill Magness, the CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas before he was fired, lauded the great achievement of only losing 40 percent of the grid. He said ERCOT was only four minutes or so away from losing the entire grid — tripping generators across the entire state and forcing a “black start” from a completely de-energized grid resulting in a statewide blackout lasting weeks or months. With that, he again reminded our foreign enemies and domestic terrorists alike of the fragility of our electricity infrastructure.
Why is that a problem? The ERCOT grid is comprised of antiquated connections of wires and generation plants, some of which are quite old. Each generation plant needs a live grid to transmit electricity. Pouring too much electricity into that grid will fry the circuits. Too little electricity and the switching equipment degrades and shuts the generators down. Texas has avoided a black start so far. But other grids around the nation have suffered massive failures and rebounded from black starts: the great Northeast blackout in 1977 impacted 30 million people; the massive 2003 blackout hit 50 million people along the Atlantic seaboard after a tree hit a line in Ohio; and more recently the 2011 Arizona and Southern California failure, when an operator made an error. These grids recovered in days, if not hours. Leaving Texas open to the prospect of a months’ long blackout is sheer idiocy.
If the Texas grid is unprepared for a predictable weather event because of a lack of investment, the public needs to question the grid’s vulnerability to other kinds of extreme events: physical attacks, cyberattacks, and electromagnetic pulse radiation.
Hirs is an energy economics professor and the inaugural University of Houston Energy Fellow.