At the time of writing this blog, Texas is frozen, their power grid is struggling with loss of generation, people are dying, and there’s a lot of finger-pointing by various leaders. So what is really happening?
For this blog, I spent a considerable amount of time researching this issue to understand the multiple factors leading up to this debacle. I also brought on a consultant who spent 40 years operating one of Texas’s largest coal-burning power plants and understands the nation’s power grid exceptionally well.
I will take a critical look at the politics behind power generation, the infrastructure, what you can expect in the future, what the power generators and politicians are preparing for, and what you can do to ensure you are ready for when the power grid inevitably fails next.
There’s a lot to cover, and I encourage you to stick around until the end. I tried to avoid politics and finger-pointing to simply look at the facts to understand how severe this problem is. So let’s jump in.
Politics & Power Generation
When the lights go out, the finger-pointing starts. Suddenly every politician and captain of industry wants to point the finger at the other side of the spectrum and avoid blame or kick the genuine problems further down the road. Every pundit shouts out their opinion on the networks without offering any facts or even demonstrating any real knowledge of the problems. Every ratepayer vehemently backs one of the arguments. Nobody solves the problem by the time night falls, and the heat is off.
To understand the power grid system in the United States, we need to have a quick lesson. Power generation starts with a generator facility. This can be hydroelectric, solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal, nuclear, or power plants burning fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, or coal. At each power station the voltage is elevated to allow the power to be efficiently transported to where it is needed. This part of a power grid is known as the transmission system, where the voltages can be extremely high. Very sophisticated equipment is required to control these extreme voltages. This power travels to substations that use transformers to transform the energy to lower voltages more fit for neighborhood requirements, businesses, and heavy industry. This system encompasses switchyards, transformers, and their associated breakers. A distribution system of step-down transformers, sensors, poles, and wires above and below ground deliver this electricity to the rate-paying consumers. The fragility of the network is only one problem.
Much of the system is very old and has needed upgrades for quite some time. Parts of this network are more than a century old — 70 percent of the grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are over 25 years old, and the average age of power plants is more than 30 years old. It is noteworthy that fossil generator plants have a typical life span of approximately 30 years. These complex systems are in constant need of repair, maintenance, and outright replacement. In some cases, government regulations have tried to force change in the system by regulating many fossil fuel power generation plants while simultaneously requiring backup generation capabilities or green energy production. The government through increased environmental regulation can force privately owned utilities to change or modify their systems including the forcing off line of units not deemed environmentally friendly or upgrade their systems or even change their systems completely. The government “encourages” this change through one or some of the following: regulations, monetization, and incentivization through grants or tax breaks. If the government were to completely take over and operate or supervise utilities, then that would be the textbook definition of Communism, so utilities are for the most part privately owned businesses or publicly held companies. It should be noted that generating companies such as Tennessee Valley Authority are the exception to this rule and are government owned and operated. The relationship between ratepayer, power generator, and distributor, and the government is very complex, and probably all three sides first seek to avoid the problems they know they face rather than work together to solve them. Also, suffice it to say that to truly fix America’s power problems will require the rate payer, meaning you and me, to shoulder the increased cost of electrical power for a period of time.
Three Power Grids and Three Problems
The United States has three major power grids– the Western, Eastern, and Texas Interconnect. Each of these three power grids has its own set of unique problems along with their shared problems of aging systems and a reluctance to adopt new means of power generation.
Starting with the most prominent problem in the news today, Texas. At the time of this blog, over 4 million Texans are without power. But their exact predicament isn’t new. It is not a factor of wind or solar generation that contributes only about a tenth of the state’s total energy generation. This exact situation happened a decade ago in 2011. Plunging temperatures forced rolling blackouts across Texas causing more than 4 million people to be without power. In the aftermath of this blackout, federal energy officials warned the grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, that Texas power plants had failed to weatherize facilities to protect against cold weather adequately. A federal report that summer recommended steps including installing heating elements around pipes and increasing the amount of reserve power available before storms, noting that many of those same warnings were issued after similar blackouts from frigid temperatures 22 years earlier in 1989 had gone unheeded. So, over thirty years later, same cold weather and the same problems and blackouts. Now 23 people are dead, and over 4 million homes and businesses are without power.
The Western Interconnect power grid has its problems. California struggles with high winds sparking wildfires from downed lines. The solution to the problem that many California power companies are slowly implementing is to bury power lines underground, hire meteorologists, establish weather stations to monitor the environment, replace wood poles with steel poles, even put up remote camera systems and purchase fire fighting helicopters. Some companies have also insulated power lines, rewired electrical grids for sectionalization. Power companies are also installing synchrophasors on power lines that sense when a power line is failing and can then automatically shut off the line before it grounds against trees and other items that could catch fire. As you can imagine, doing all that is a multi-decade project, and it will cost billions of dollars to accomplish. In the meantime, when the wind starts to blow, the power might go out. When the temperature rises and more electricity is used to run air conditioners, systems can be overloaded, and blackouts or brownouts can occur due to stringent regulation of generating facilities and the failure of utilities for one reason or another to build generating facilities to support increased population demands.
And the Eastern Interconnect has its own unique problems, as well. In 2003 it suffered a blackout that affected 55 million people. What caused this outage? A hot day increased energy demand in homes and businesses. All those cranked-up air conditioners created higher currents and heated electrical lines. Those lines started to sag, then a power plant in Eastlake, Ohio, went down. That added heightened pressure to an already overtaxed system. The sagging lines came into contact with overgrown trees and tripped their load to other power lines. That caused overloading of already highly loaded lines and they automatically shut down to avoid destruction. This cascade caused generating units to shed load due to frequency issues which then caused an extremely rapid cascading failure of the whole system. One hundred nuclear power generation facilities shut down completely, and other power generation plants went off line. In hindsight, this massive outage was linked to a simple software malfunction. An alarm system was stalled for an hour, and a control room was unaware they needed to balance a load. Things cascaded out of control from there.
What You Can Expect in the Future
Old equipment and faulty or misconfigured sensors and sensing equipment can quickly bring down an entire system. So, while each grid system and power plant generation configuration has its own unique problems, they also share some common issues. Your takeaway from that shouldn’t be to lay blame on any particular entity. Believe me, the politicians, power companies, ratepayers, and pundits will be plenty busy playing a musical chairs blame game. Your takeaway should be that it isn’t a question of “if” the power will go down. It is a question of “when” the power will go down. And when the power goes down, the effect of other disasters is increased exponentially. When the power goes down, even small problems can be amplified. When the power goes down, a cascading effect could lead to even more significant problems and unravel other systems and even social order. This was amply demonstrated as many cities in Texas had no water for drinking or sanitation due to their water systems being without electricity. Current weather predictions show that over the next several decades, we will continue seeing changes to our climate as the temperatures are predicted to rise annually. The scientific community is still researching the potential side effects that will impact the polar vortex which could lead to colder winters. You need to prepare for this very real eventuality that our power grid may continue to falter with these new challenges.
If it’s not the aging, overburdened, or misconfigured system, it could be a natural disaster. At the end of the day, when night comes and the cold sets in, the cause of the failure isn’t going to matter as much as the solutions you have pre-programmed in to deal with the failure. You can spend your time worrying about where the water comes from when the pipes freeze and burst, or you can prepare yourself by storing water now.
You can expect that this problem will be ongoing, and the blame game will continue. If the government over regulates the system or tries to take over any systems’ operation, the system owners and shareholders will cry out “Communism.” Utility companies may or may not adhere to recommendations in the meantime. Judging from their previous track record, they may not and will repeat the same mistakes. Of course, the battle between renewable energies and fossil fuel energies will continue to rage on, and these battles are more theoretically than practically based. It’s all a lot of noise, but each new chapter in the cacophony of the ongoing arguments and disruptions of service is a problem for you. So, as they prepare for their next volley of criticisms and finger-pointing, you should prepare too.
They Prepare, You Prepare
As the pundits, politicians, big business, traditionalists, Capitalists, activists, Liberalists, and every other person shout over each other and prepare their arguments for and against existing systems, you should be preparing to live successfully through an extended or perhaps even semi-permanent grid down situation.
The first step of your preparation is to assess your real power requirements. Do you need a device for communication, simple heating and cooking, or refrigeration? If so, you may be able to accomplish these rudimentary requirements with a small fuel generator or solar generator. The fuel generator may require liquid fuel or can be converted to run on propane or natural gas, but properly sized it will generate more electricity for you if your needs are significant. Solar generators and solar chargers have come a long way in recent years. There are those that can simply boil water via a portable immersion heater or charge simple devices, run a refrigerator and stay charged with solar panels.
Obviously, where you live might be the big determinant of what your self-sufficient power needs are going to be. You may live in the country but lack the funds and ingenuity to establish a solar array or windmills or tap into the current of the creek that runs through your property. If you live in an urban environment, your landlord isn’t likely to let you set up anything elaborate, and you won’t exactly be able to set up a campfire to purify drinking water. These are all factors of achieving your real power needs. Running your TV might not be a real power need, but running your heat or some type of small air conditioning unit might be. Keeping your insulin refrigerated is a real power need. Switching your diet to foods that don’t require extensive cooking or refrigeration will certainly help to minimize your power needs.
The best way to tackle this problem is to make a list of your real power needs and then determine how to accomplish those needs, even at a minimalist level. For instance, to survive, you will need to be able to filter, treat, or boil water, and you will need to obtain fresh water. If the power goes out, pumping stations will cease to work. The flow of water to your tap is going to stop at some point, and the guaranteed cleanliness of that water may be in question when systems fail, and water becomes contaminated. Will you need electricity to boil water, a Kelly Kettle for a small fire method of boiling, or are both out of the question? In addition, will you need a filtration or treatment method of making water safe to drink? When the tap runs dry with the power outage, will you have enough water stored, the means to pump your own water, melt snow, or collect precipitants? Electricity and water are interrelated, and water is essential to your survival. As such, it’s a real power need.
Small devices for communication and news updates are a real power need. The ability to generate heat and light, even on a small scale, are real power needs. Refrigeration may be a real power need for you, as I mentioned earlier. Once you have separated out and addressed your real power needs versus your luxury or like to have uses for electricity, the next step is to factor in the outside influencers of an extended grid-down situation. Of those millions of people in the United States currently without power, how many have enough food on hand and the means and skills to prepare that food? They’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant to get a burger while the snowstorm rages on outside and the power is out. Trucks are not going to be able to traverse unplowed roads to deliver food to your grocery store, which will lack the power to sell anything anyways. Make sure you have the food stores to last you for a week, two weeks, or even longer. If you anticipate that you might be facing a crisis that could range on for months, you will also need to have the means to procure food from wild or homegrown sources.
If the roads and transportation are out because the power is out, will you have the Everyday Carry bag you need to get home to your loved ones? How many of those millions of people currently stranded do? I would venture to guess that not many do. Here we need to face the reality that while many outages may only last a few hours, the possibility that one could stretch on for days or weeks while being compounded by other disasters is a real possibility. You may have to face the very real Christian choice of helping others or only helping yourself. In that situation, millions of people could be stranded and solely reliant upon the help of others. So factor in the outside influencers of your safety and well-being, along with your real power needs and essential survival elements. If the masses are desperate enough, they may eventually come to your doorstep.
Also, develop at least a short-term medical solution for yourself and those in your group. Is that just your basic first aid requirements, or are there essential medicines you are dependent upon for survival? Remember, first aid is just that–first. It’s meant for emergencies you face when you encounter them and to keep you alive enough to get secondary aid. When you think of medical needs, also consider that you may not have access to secondary aid like doctors, hospitals, medical centers, and pharmacies. What’s your Band-Aid for that? Start to think about your medical resources, knowledge, and network in a broader sense.
So, while the politicians, pundits, and everyone else dukes it out, get your preps in order. Plan for the problems to continue and to potentially get even worse each time. If what we see today is just the beginning of a more considerable downfall, you will know what you need to do to survive by preparing now.
One thing we can conclude is that these problems we see today will continue. When we leave our lives in the hands of either big business or politicians from either side of the aisle, we are surrendering our ability to be self-sufficient. Being adequately prepared requires you to see the inevitable without the filter of punditry. While those discussions rage on, they aren’t going to solve the problem of an aging infrastructure that just needs a little push to collapse. When you get through this, don’t just brush it off. Get motivated to live through it better the next time it happens.
Please let us know the coldest you have ever been or your advice to those suffering through the cold right now. We are stronger together as a community.
As always, stay safe out there.