Trouble With The Texas Power Grid As Cold Weather Boosts Demand, Knocks Out Generators

It comes as something of a shock that residents of the Lone Star State are suffering from rolling power blackouts in the face of an unusually severe winter. First off, winter in Texas? Second, isn’t it the summer heat waves that cause the rolling blackouts in that region?

Were you to mention Texas to a European, they’d maybe think of cowboys, oil, the hit TV show Dallas, and if they were European Hackaday readers, probably the semiconductor giant Texas Instruments. The only state of the USA with a secession clause also turns out to to have their own power grid independent of neighboring states.

An accurate and contemporary portrait of a typical Texan, as understood by Europeans. Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain.
An accurate and contemporary portrait of a typical Texan, as understood by Europeans. Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain.

Surely America is a place of such resourcefulness that this would be impossible, we cry as we watch from afar the red squares proliferating across the outage map. It turns out that for once the independent streak that we’re told defines Texas may be its undoing. We’re used to our European countries being tied into the rest of the continental grid, but because the Texan grid stands alone it’s unable to sip power from its neighbours in times of need.

Let’s dive into the mechanics of maintaining an electricity grid, with the unfortunate Texans for the moment standing in as the test subject.


Combination of Coal, Natural Gas, Nuclear, and Wind Power Generators Knocked Out by Cold

If a power grid was as simple as a collection of generating stations connected full-time to a constant load, its running would be a relatively straightforward affair of shoveling some sort of fuel in at one end and receiving the benefit of the electricity at the other. Sadly the reality of powering a human population is never so predictable, and the grid utility plays a constant game of anticipating variable demand in order to match it with generating capacity. Entire power stations exist with the specific application of providing near instantaneous extra power — you may remember our reporting on UK’s Electric Mountain. Grid strategists make it their business to predict our actions as they relate to power use down to the minute.

Since Texas has blistering hot summers they are used to their periods of peak load happening as Texans turn on their air conditioning en masse, with the relatively mild winters in a state bordering the Gulf of Mexico providing little stress to the system. But here we have a perfect storm of energy facilities closed by the weather being unable to cope with the extra demand has Texas turn to electric heat to keep them warm.

Their current cold snap has replaced the relatively balmy with the frozen Arctic, causing ice storms that have halted half of the wind power generation for the state as of Sunday morning. According to grid operator Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the majority of the generation plants that were knocked offline by the cold beginning on Sunday were a combination of gas, coal, or nuclear energy. (Outages in Mexico were also reported due to frozen natural gas pipelines incoming from Texas.) While wind power did make up a quarter of Texas’ power generation in 2020, those turbines are reportedly not run at full capacity during the winter months.

North America, in power grid terms. Fjbfour, Public domain.
North America, in power grid terms. Fjbfour, Public domain.

In times of need, can you borrow a cup of energy from a neighbor? Continental North America has two large power grids, one on each side of the Rockies, and a few smaller grids of which the Texas Interconnect is one. The reason for its existence is historical, and in part its continuation is because as a single-state entity it is not subject to some Federal or international (with Canada) regulations. It has some relatively modest DC interconnects with its neighbours, but they are not of sufficient capacity to allow generators in warmer states to take up the slack. There is an ambitious plan for a much larger DC interconnect project to link both the Eastern and Western grids with the Texan one, which in turn gives us a chance for a look at how grids are synchronised.

Phase Sync Makes Connecting AC Grids Tricky

Huge thyristors used in the converter plants of the DC link between North and South Islands, New Zwaland. Marshelec, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Huge thyristors used in the converter plants of the DC link between North and South Islands, New Zealand. Marshelec, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Connecting two AC electricity grids is not simply a case of wiring them together, as their AC frequency and phase must both match exactly in order for a connection to work. The Texas grid has the same nominal frequency of 60Hz as its neighbours, but in practice there will be a slight difference in frequency and phase that can not be reconciled without the impractical step of powering down the entire state and restarting all its generators in synchronisation. The solution when transferring power between grids is therefore to convert it to DC for the intermediate stage, then back to AC at the correct grid frequency and phase. Many undersea cables such as those linking the UK, Scandinavia, and continental Europe take this approach, meaning that those grids are linked for the purpose of trading power but not synchronised. Thus when in 2018 a political stand-off in Kosovo caused a load imbalance that sent Europe’s grid frequency into a downward spiral, the British grid was unaffected. This is how the ambitious American grid interconnect mentioned earlier is slated to work, with DC links from all three grids meeting in New Mexico with a superconducting cable interconnect for an extra efficiency boost.

Electricity at the scale in which most Hackaday readers encounter it is a cinch to manage with a switching regulator here and there or maybe even a breaker or two in low-power mains circuits. At the scale of a grid, a country, or a continent though it enters an order of magnitude in which a single semiconductor switching device can be the size of a small house, and engineers must concern themselves with not only the matters of power handling but also human behaviours and geopolitics. If you’re a Texan Hackaday reader hunkering down for a cold spell then you have our sympathy and best wishes for a speedy thaw, and meanwhile for the rest of us it’s worth remembering that it could just as easily happen anywhere else.

Header image including USA map, Wapcaplet, CC BY-SA 3.0.

253 thoughts on “Trouble With The Texas Power Grid As Cold Weather Boosts Demand, Knocks Out Generators

    1. Blaming the people of Texas for Enron, something that by your admission happened 20 years ago, and celebrating their suffering, makes you appear to be quite a nasty, clueless person.
      I am not from Texas, or anywhere near it, but I can say with certainty that you are quite the turd. You are, unfortauntely, typical for the type of person who hangs out at this “hacking” block that never has any real hacks. Honestly not sure why I am even wasting my time posting this.

      1. For me, locally, in the North Houston burbs, we lost the Lewis Creek Power Plant for a few days. But, to my benefit, I am staying with my GF in Temple and so far we have not lost power, but have received 2 seperate storms with over 6″ of snow on top of ice. Expecting more snow tonight, followed by a warming trend (20F) that will make the falling snow turn in to freezing rain, making the roads impassable again. I tried going to McDOnalds for breakfast Sunday and just slid down the driveway in my truck.

          1. Most of Europe wouldn’t know how to drive in the snow either. They either freak out, or break out the chains and make a big fuss about driving 40-60 kph everywhere (because they chains would break).

          1. You have no perspective here. The reason this happens is because it is not typical for anyone in Texas to keep winter tires on their vehicles, and even all-season tires are not that common – I have seen a high percentage of summer tires and off road tires (which are not good in snow). Try driving a large pickup with mud tires on a slick freeway – It’s quite terrifying.

          2. That, plus rear-wheel drive on everything (everyone drives a truck of some sort), so even if you did have winter tires you would still slip and slide all over the place when the roads turn to wet ice.

            RWD is horrible in the winter because the front wheels have to turn relative to the direction of your traction force in order to steer – you’re basically plowing them sideways against the icy road every time you turn. With pickups and no load at the rear, you can so easily apply too much throttle and lose grip on all four wheels. It’s touch and go.

          3. Then you’re doing it wrong, you do the scandinavian flick, and use controlled oversteer.

            I’ve seen FWD vehicles (probably with little diff limits) completely defeated by an icy hill, and pinging off to the side on the camber.

          4. @Dude, I drove rear wheel drive vehicles on the Michigan snow for the first 20 years of my driving life. You just have to know what you are doing. Starting the winter season by by purposely spinning out in an empty parking lot is not a bad idea just to get a feel for exactly how your vehicle behaves.

          5. >you do the scandinavian flick, and use controlled oversteer.

            The scandinavian flick was invented for FWD cars. The problem in this case is that you’re already in a situation where your front wheels are plowing the snow sideways, which makes the car understeer, to suddenly going into massive oversteer when the rear wheels start to spin and lose lateral grip into the turn. When that happens, you’re not in a position to try any “flicks” because you’re already in a four wheel spin.

            FWD cars behave in a more predictable manner in the ice and snow. If you turn too hard, they understeer. If you throttle too hard, they understeer. They don’t switch suddenly from understeer to oversteer or vice versa.

            >I’ve seen FWD vehicles (probably with little diff limits) completely defeated by an icy hill

            The technique to get up an ice slope in a FWD car is to go sideways like a snake, making alternating left and right sweeps to tack your way up the hill. You start by making sharp turns and then gradually straighten out as you pick up speed.

            In a RWD car, turning the front wheels wedges them against the direction the rear wheels are trying to push, so you get wheel spin at the rear and start to slide back down the hill. Your only option is to steer straight up the hill and very carefully feather the gas. Any wheel-spin and you slide down.

          6. I live in massachusetts and we get lots of snow and ice and we all just use our normal summer tires. My car is a hot rod with low profile tires and I have no problems in the ice and snow.

            Proper technique is the key. Pretend there is a raw egg between your foot and the gas pedal.

          7. To all the people saying that it is OK to use summer tires in the winter, especially in icy climates: You are very irresponsible. This is basic physics, i.e. friction coefficients, and plastics science.
            There is absolutely no comparison between a true summer tire and an all-season tire. I suspect many of you *think* you are referring to summer tires, but in fact you are referring to all-season, or touring tires. A summer tire on ice or snow has very little friction and you are making a dangerous mistake if using these on winter roads – In an emergency situation, you are at a massive disadvantage. This is simple fact and anyone who actually understands what kind of tire they have, and lives in the winter areas knows what I am talking about. This is why the EU requires usage of winter tires in many areas during winter months. Driving on the freeway, on ice/snow/etc, with summer tires, isn’t just dangerous, it’s negligent.
            Anyone who has driven with true winter tires knows that there is absolutely no comparison between a winter tire and even an all-season tire. It turns your car into a snowmobile :)

          8. That’s explains while every winter we see the multi-vehicle pileups in places like Minnesots and Iowa, because clearly those people do know hot to drive on snow.

          9. >massachusetts

            That’s 42°N, or like southern Europe.


            You do not get proper winter. The temperatures near the coast average above freezing all year round, which makes a huge difference in how the roads freeze. If the ground stays above 32 F, the snowfall tends to melt away and only rarely turn to the sort of permanent glazing you get in Canada and northern/eastern Europe. With any snow quickly turning to slush and then water, you can make do with summer tires.

            If you set out on the bald ice with summer tires in the middle of January in Stockholm, well, first of all the rubber will be so hard that you can’t get any grip and you will have extreme trouble even moving the car. When you do get it moving, and you get some speed, the first turn puts you off the road. No matter how careful you are with the gas, you can’t beat physics.

          10. The difference with real winter tires is not only the pattern and the ice spikes, but the rubber composition which stays softer to extremely low temperatures – but wears out really quickly when driven on dry roads above freezing. These tires are meant for climates where the roads cannot be kept clear because the temperatures stay too low to use salt, so you get a permanent polished ice cover made of compacted snow.

            Then there’s winter tires without metal studs, more properly called “snow tires”, which have a softer rubber formulation so they can’t be used through the summer, and a wide pattern which grips on snow and slush. These are meant for winter use in intermediate climates where you get sustained low temperatures and the occasional snowstorm, but generally the roads stay free of ice, or they’re salted regularly so the studded tires would wear out too fast. Compared to the first case, these tires are terrible on compacted snow that has turned to bald ice.

            People who drive studded winter tires usually roughen the ice up enough that stud-less snow tires will work. Throwing grit and sand on the roads serves the same point and enable people to drive on snow tires where the conditions would otherwise require proper studded winter tires, with the downside that you’re getting pelted by little bits of rock from the other vehicles, and the huge amount of dust it makes after the spring thaw.

            Then you have the all-season tires, which are a kind of compromise in that they “work” in all seasons but they’re pretty lousy in the winter. They’re really designed for places that don’t get proper winter. People try to use these instead of snow tires with generally worse results, and compensate with “careful driving”, which means driving by luck: if you ever have to brake on these through an icy patch, you’re in the ditch.

            And then you have summer tires, which have a hard rubber formulation to work in the summer heat, and a thin tread cut, which turn into hard skates in the winter and generally behave like driving on blocks of hard soap. If there’s ice on the road, you will wipe out at 5 mph because they will just spin and spin.

          11. I live in Oregon, but even in 8″ of snow and ice for weeks I didn’t put chains on my front wheel drive minivan, and I drove all over, no problem. I drive in the mountains in snow without putting the chains on, too. They do require me to have them in the vehicle, in case I need them.
            Winter tires, what? I’ve only seen those on 4x4s. Hmm…

      2. They can still be taken off line by downed transmission lines and stuff but that is a factor for any generation tied to the grid. I think they can throttle output much easier and faster than coal, maybe not gas, so might not be as vulnerable to sudden changes in load.

        1. Nuclear plants are typically considered as base capacity, with wind and solar you get what you get, and fossil plants scale to meet demand. I am sure transient demand changes would not threaten the safety of a nuke plant, but I don’t think they are quick to respond to large swings in demand. But also that’s not what we’re talking about.

      1. “On Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, at 0537, an automatic reactor trip occurred at South Texas Project in Unit 1. The trip resulted from a loss of feedwater attributed to a cold weather-related failure of a pressure sensing lines to the feedwater pumps, causing a false signal, which in turn, caused the feedwater pump to trip. This event occurred in the secondary side of the plant (non-nuclear part of the unit). The reactor trip was a result of the feedwater pump trips. The primary side of the plant (nuclear side) is safe and secured.”

        Simple fix: do something to make sure extreme cold doesn’t affect feedwater pressure sensing lines in the future. Insulation? Heater sleeve? It was not a lack of feedwater that caused the problem.

        1. Nuclear plants trip more often than you would expect. They have automatic detection of fault conditions that will trip the reactor, and this is what they’re supposed to do. In this case, an issue with a non safety related system was correctly detected and resolved. The only issue is it caused loss of production.

          I say the jury is still out on root cause for this. But they will definitely figure it out and make sure it doesn’t happen again. A couple days’ lost production is a big hit financially. Maybe a simple fix, maybe not.

    1. I’m not sure what your reference for “South Texas 1 is off-line, but this is due to planned maintenance and refueling that started last year.” is. This (admittedly random and unfamiliar to me) website seems to indicate the cold weather is indeed causing the unit 1 outage:

      Also, the Feb 15th NRC report has STP unit 1 at 100%.

      My dad worked at that plant for 20 years.

    1. Texan here. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. We won’t have preparedness until the electricity producers figure out a way to charge customers for it. The entire energy industry is profit driven. Natural gas plants stayed off-line because the spot price of natural gas went up and they would lose money providing electricity to people slowly freezing to death in their homes. You don’t have to dig too far into the comments online to find “if you don’t like it, buy a generator!” being treated as if it’s sensible advice.

      1. So, be wealthy enough to afford a generator because the state can’t be depended on to provide a basic service reliably when predictable cycles of bad weather hit. Which can lead to people dying, because big bad Texas is too inept to deal with inclement weather. You know, a force that exists ever changing and predictably ever present.

        Yeah, I suppose that’s a logical conclusion of the whole “rugged individualism” mindset.

        People should dig their own wells if they don’t want to die of thirst.

        Such stupid “logic”. Completely ignores the concept of public utilities.

        1. A generator capable of powering a good portion of your home (and water well, if you have one) costs no more than that piece of crap smart phone that I’m sure you carry around. Not to mention the monthly plan that you pay. Ditch the “smart” phone, get smart for real.

          1. @NiHauMike
            1) For your ludicrous inverter assertion:
            Let’s just assume that your car has 65A to spare from the alternator. Which it doesn’t. But let’s just assume it does. That is 780W. Now let’s be generous and assume an 80% effciciency of power conversion from 12V to 120V (or… 240V for your water well). Ok, so now 624W left over.
            You won’t be running ANY significant household appliance from that. So maybe you should learn some basic electrical math before you post such silly things. FYI, overloading your modern car’s alternator for any significant period of time will cause it to fail, unfortunately – This is because most cars nowadays use garbage alternators made in china.

            2) Your assertion that the masses, the majority, walking around with their latest iphone and android devices, are spending $5 on them, is nothing more than laughable, and not worth any more response than this.

          2. The actual test data shows that over 2kW is available from the car.
            How much stuff is truly essential? a few watts for basic lighting, 30W for basic communication equipment, 100W for the fridge (peak is much higher, however), a few hundred watts for a natural gas furnace or window A/C unit (both subject to high peaks). The well pump is going to draw quite a bit but since it only needs to run for short times to get an essential supply of water, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to only run it when no other large load is running. Electric cooking equipment is also a big draw but also only used for short times, plus the resistive ones without electronics will work at much lower voltages.

            Bottom line is that 2kW or even a mere 100W would be very useful in an emergency, and certainly a lot better than nothing.

          3. When I built a 1200W solar panel system, to get power outside I had an electrician install a transfer switch.

            So, in my shed where my controller lives, I also have a 5 KW generator.

            Its powerful enough to run my refrigerators and furnace (gas, but with blowers of course).

            It will not run the drier, but I never expect power to be off for that to be an issue.

          4. I didn’t use a dryer until I was nearly 30, so see them as a convenience rather than an essential. Might wanna make yourself a clothes rack though for when it’s too cold to hang them on the outside clothes line.

          5. @NiHaoMike
            The test you reference is categorically garbage and not applicable to 99% of vehicles on the market – It’s really odd that you referenced it a second time – You should read up on car electrical systems, maybe…. You are citing someone loading the HV battery system on a first generation prius, not the standard 12V system of a car. In regards to EV systems, don’t you try those same tests on any more recent EV that has all of the modern diagnostics on the electrical system and see how that works out for you…
            To reiterate my point, your alternator has a maximum output that it is designed for.
            Alternators are getting smaller and smaller as vehicle power demands decrease (More efficient electronics for HVAC, control, LED headlights, etc).
            If you exceed the alternator’s rated output, you WILL destroy it. This is simple fact and is demonstrated over and over by people who install all sorts of aftermarket accessories on their vehicles (some of these high power LED light bars being one of them) and then end up replacing their alternator several times before a mechanic finally informs them of the likely culprit.
            In reality, you have a few hundred watts available to you in modern vehicles,.
            I do agree with you that even 100W would be useful in an emergency, but consider that running a car’s engine to maintain such a small output results in a very horrible inefficiency as compared to even a low quality alternator.

          6. My smart phone was right around $20. You picked the wrong guy for that one. But the point is well taken. I live in NY and we have gas heat that does not require power and a fleet of small generators we can call into action if we have to.

          7. Re: $200 generators. The ones I use most were all sub $100 units. I am a huge fan of the old 1.2KW 2 cycle generators. They have been de rated now to 800 running and 900 peak. I have had the two of them for 20 years or so. One of them is big enough to light up the living room which is a couple of LED bulbs, the TV and the stereo as well as our notebooks and the cable modem and router. The other one is big enough to go between the fridge and the freezer. Feed these guys premium gas and good 2 cycle oil and they just go forever. When you are done shit the petcock off and run it out of gas and she is ready to go next time. I can not say enough good things about these. There are literally no service parts in them. I have never changed a spark plug and they have no oil to change and no filters.

            I have a big 10KW 3 cylinder diesel generator and that has so many maintenance points I hate starting it. Ditto with the 4 cycle gas jobbers, they are even worse.

            As far as how much power you need, it all depends on what you wanna do. I could see one more of the little generators to go between a hot plate, toaster oven, and water pump, but we have not lost power for more than a few hours in years.

          8. @Steven: And in an emergency one can dry the laundry also on a clothes line.
            Bit This “car as a generator” site seems to be oriented to Prius or other hybrid or electric cars. That’s a different thing to a normal car with normal engine and alternator.

        2. The “state” doesn’t provide electricity, private utilities do. Maybe ask the providers why they chose to not install the ‘arctic thermal protection’ package on their wind turbines in Texas?

          1. Who funds these windmills?
            Private utilities? Not relly. In the end, they are funded with tax credits, which means that in reality, they are funded by the taxpayer.
            So maybe you should ask the taxpayer why they didn’t fund it. After all, only ~50% of their money goes to taxes right now, when you combine income, fuel, home, sales and other taxes. Why not more?

          2. Correct, but just like many things, the state does have an interest in ensuring that its citizens have reliable power. Hence ERCOT, electric Reliability Council Of Texas, which is an organization overseen by a state commission and the state legislature and whose sole purpose is to manage reliability of the grid in Texas.

            The governor of Texas has declared reform of ERCOT an emergency legislative action for this year.

            I am pretty sure the wind turbines were just down for routine reasons. They’re not usually needed during winter in Texas since demand is so low compared to summer demand. But that is my understanding, not verified.

          1. It happened because our state government here in Texas abdicated responsibility for regulating the power grid to the power producers. Who not surprisingly didn’t spend money preparing the grid for a statewide cold snap, because that money would be happier in their and their shareholders’ pockets.

            We also had a 100+ car pileup in Fort Worth in which 6 people died the other day. It happened on a tolled “express” portion of an Interstate highway, and the tollway operator (obviously) didn’t prepare the road for the ice storm that was forecast at least a week in advance. Privatized infrastructure in the name of “lower taxes” and “small government.”

            In the end, someone will pay minuscule fines, insurance companies will go bankrupt, and the loss of life on the road will be blamed on the truck drivers instead of the tollway operator.

          2. “Snow in Texas is not a thing anybody would plan for. ”

            When they say “climate change results in more severe weather” What do you think they were talking about? Some of us are paying attention.

          3. @X
            You have no idea what you are talking about. We have been having extreme weather events like this for all of documented weather history.
            Did you know that much of North America was a glacier barely 10,000 years ago?
            And then those cave men and their inefficient fossil-fuel-burning cars caused massive global warming and melted those glaciers. WAIT A MINUTE…..
            Claiming to have any understanding of what is happening in our climate with barely more than a hundred years of documented data (in a world that is, even by the conservative estimates, far more than 10,000 years old) is akin to being a member of one of these cults who believe that if they drink the poison juice, they will wake up on the alien mothership.
            There is no science behind the belief you appear to be asserting here. Only cult-like religion. Not that long ago, many scientists were willing to admit that they had no idea what was going on and continued to collaborate with others to seek the truth. Now, the “accepted science” is simply theories piled on top of assumptions that are piled on top of theories. All totally statistically and scientifically irrelevant… But certainly valid for a cult!

          4. @BasedWhale – I’m wondering how you heat and light your home without relying on “theories piled on top of assumptions on top of theories” since electricity is “only a theory” as is the way a light bulb works.

          5. > since electricity is “only a theory” as is the way a light bulb works.

            A theory is the explanation or an assumption over of how things work. Electricity is a real phenomenon that will work regardless of how you explain it.

            Do you think cavemen needed Newton’s laws of motion to bash each other with stone clubs?

        3. 61% of Texas residents use electricity for their heat. The best case is a newish heat pump that can provide heat in the single digits without auxiliary resistive heating. So most people would need an 8KW+ generator. Portable ones only seem to cost ~$1000 surprisingly. You would need a way to connect it to your service panel though.

          1. You need a breaker with an interlock to your main feed, so by sliding a metal piece you can power your house from the aux breaker but not the service entrance. They are overpriced at $25 or so.
            Don’t even think about making a male to male patch cord.

          2. I might try something like putting a window AC in backwards over the top of the genny (outside) … anything is better than resistive heat… including beacuoup de grow lamps, crypto mining, or folding/SETI etc.

      2. The alternative is worse: preparing for freak events and paying public funds for it continuously, resulting in idiotic taxes and price hikes that mainly go towards paying a few government crony contractors who keep demanding more. 99.999% of the effort goes wasted and in the end, the reasonable solution would have been just to buy a spare canister of propane and a generator.

        1. I mean, I live in an apartment building but even I have the means to boil water, provide lights, and charge a cellphone for a couple days in case the power goes out. If you want entertainment, break out the playing cards and board games.

          1. Far simpler than that. I just bring the car’s battery indoors to charge the phone. 12 volts and 60 Amp-hours is 760 Wh which charges a 10 Wh phone many times over. Candles for light, and a little camping burner to cook food.

            A box of tea candles provides a surprising amount of heat as well. One candle is worth 40 Watts and 4 hours. A dozen or so in different rooms keeps the minimum heat going and stops the place from freezing up completely, and you can use them to keep a kettle of tea going.

          2. Only problem is getting warm water for washing, because after about 24 hours all you get is ice cold out of the apartment boilers.

            One solution is to draw a hot bath right after the power goes out, so you’re left with room temperature water later on. Just don’t wash yourself in the tub, because then you’ll just have a tub full of dirty soapy water for the next day. Bail it with a bucket.

          3. The biggest problem I have in my apartment durin an extended outage is that the water pump has no backup power. There is a very short window after the outage that one could still store some water before the pressure drops quickly. I prepared for that by having containers fill with water.

            The power has been very unreliable for the past few years and I have exoerience a few 4-5 days power outage. Even the cable company cheaps out on no longer backing up their cable internet. They would rather have people using up their expensive data charges on their cell serivce.

          4. Sure Dude. Try that in sub freezing weather with your magic candles that generate no more heat than a small light bulb. Boil water with a candle? That’s rich maybe a oz or two. Light? Yeah sort of.

            Oh yeah your cell phone would be useless because the cell towers generators are either frozen or out of gas.

          5. The upshot is that the cell services are now sized for 24/7 mobile internet, unlike in past years when the towers would simply saturate whenever the power goes out and people start calling emergency services or their relatives etc. It gets slow, but doesn’t cut out entirely.

            Not in my area, but close by, every year tens of thousands of people go without power because of storms and wind damage to the distribution infrastructure. It’s a perennial problem that people just have to deal with. The alternative is to bury the high voltage distribution underground, but then you get massive induction losses and that’s not economical.

          6. > Boil water with a candle? That’s rich

            Yes. Not A candle but 5-6 tea candles under a pot. It’s not fast, but it works.

            I’ve even managed to distill water in a 1 L pickle jar using just candles as the heat source, and measured the efficiency by observing how much of the water was boiled off. When the jar was simply placed over the candles, I got about 20% efficiency out of it, but when I made a flue around the jar out of two layers of tin foil to reflect the heat back, it improved to about 40%.

            Given the heat content of six tea candles, you have about 1 kWh of energy, which would be theoretically enough to heat a bucket of water to a boil – over four hours. A realistic amount that you could actually manage in a reasonable time would be 1 liters of water at a time for up to 3-4 liters before the candles burn out.

          7. For the math: the specific heat of water is 4.19 kJ / kg / C

            1 kWh (3.6 MJ) is equivalent to 860 kilogram-degrees. An ordinary bucket is about 2 gallons or 7-8 liters. Divide 860 by 8 and you get 107.5 degrees. Hence why the rule of thumb: a kilowatt-hour boils a bucket of water. Actually it would boil a lot more since the water is already at room temperature, but we’ll give that to heat losses.

          8. Luckily here in Vienna the electric grid is extremely reliable, but I would not have the balcony to set up a generator. Batteries would be an option, I could take some stuff (batteries, inverter) from the garden where I have only solar power.

        2. “The alternative is worse: preparing for freak events and paying public funds for it”

          Let’s be super-clear. Look at the map. The reason for the failure is simple: Texas chose to be the smallest electrical grid in the continental US. Blah blah wind, blah blah gas, whatever. All of those are reasons *why* a small grid fails when a disaster happens. They are not the reasons why Texas has a small grid in the first place.

          Hawaii and Alaska also have tiny grids! They also have occasional problems with extended power outages. However, the reason why Alaska and Hawaii have small grids is obvious – it’s just geography.

          The reason why Texas has a small grid is stupidity. Oh, wait, I meant politics. I always get those two confused.

        3. You’re suggesting our public utilities not be prepared for “freak events” while suggesting that every household should be prepared for “freak events.”

          Is that what you’re saying?

          1. It’s not that they shouldn’t be, but that they ultimately won’t be able to prepare for every contingency, and the rarer the event the more it’s going to cost to maintain preparedness.

            The same argument could be made: why doesn’t the state maintain a fleet of snow plows and salt trucks for the once in two decades opportunity when Texas gets a big enough snowstorm that the roads are completely blocked for days? Clearly they should be prepared – right?

            It’s far easier to stockpile a few items in the house for when the inevitable happens, than make everyone pay through the nose to maintain an active safety system that for most of the time is not operational, and will probably just fail when it’s finally needed.

          2. “and the rarer the event the more it’s going to cost to maintain preparedness.”

            Nope. Fundamentally, the problem here is lack of capacity. All of the energy types are having issues, so you can’t say “oh, more of this, less of that, etc.” Doesn’t matter. All of them are having issues because of the cold. Is it smart to cold-proof all of that infrastructure when cold snaps like this are super rare? Yeah, of course.

            But that’s not the *only* way to add capacity. The other way is… massively expand ties to the two huge grids on either side. Yes, obviously, there are regional issues, you don’t want to plan on powering Texas from California. And obviously Oklahoma had rolling blackouts… for an hour.

            Adding capacity *this* way doesn’t have to cost money, because for every outage *you* have, someone else will have one too, and you can sell excess capacity that way and pay for the interconnect.

            Adding interconnect capacity handles a *huge* number of contingencies. Trying to maintain an independent small grid is just hardheaded political stupidity.

          3. Kind of sounds like the rental/leasing vs buying argument. Why own snow equipment when one can lease it from those currently not using it. Why own your own servers when one can lease and depend upon economics of scale to address contingencies (Amazon east goes out, Amazon west picks up).

          4. @Dude – this event wasn’t rare, there was a winter storm almost exactly 10 years ago. The Federal energy regulatory agencies made recommendations for how Texas could avoid grid problems the next time, and the Texas energy industry didn’t implement a single one.

            We doesn’t need to maintain a “fleet of snow plows,” plows can be added on to existing vehicles. Most big cities have at least a few trucks equipped to spread salt and sand, and in the warmer months they are simply dump trucks. Other states have the same trucks with hydraulics and attachment points for snow plows. Maybe the state shouldn’t own dump trucks though, it’s silly to have an asset that’s only used 8-10 hours per day.

          5. >All of the energy types are having issues

            Some more than others. For all the talk about how “nuclear power failed us”, people forget that ~75% of the capacity stayed online despite the one fault. Meanwhile, 80% of the wind capacity went offline. If you had to bet which one is already weather-hardened by default, you would pick nuclear power instead of wind power, for a good reason. Nuclear power can be tripped by weather-related faults like freezing a pressure sensor, but it is not dependent on weather to operate and doesn’t have freezing pipeline issues like gas.

          6. “For all the talk about how “nuclear power failed us”, people forget that ~75% of the capacity stayed online despite the one fault.”

            ** quietly points to the 100% output from solar **

            “Meanwhile, 80% of the wind capacity went offline.”

            Where the heck are you getting this from? ERCOT’s power delivery’s has shown wind at or exceeding the operating plan for virtually every hour over the past 5 days.

            The most I’ve seen is someone saying “we’re seeing wind down 60% week over week” (which *still* isn’t 80%) but no mention as to how much of that was *expected* due to forecast.

        4. It’s way more inefficient if everybody has to provide it’s own much less efficient generator and fuel supply for “freak events”.
          But it seems the way the environmental “climate change” hysterics want to go anyway. Volatile renewable power and smart grids – you should use electricity when it’s a available and not when you need it. Thus DEcreasing the quality of our electricity supply.

          1. As long as there’s a reserve for essential purposes and the focus is on turning things *on* when there’s plenty available, it’s a good idea if implemented properly. Something like smart thermostats on water heaters to boost the setpoint when there’s a lot of renewable surplus would be easy low hanging fruit.

      3. This isn’t quite it. Prices hit $9,000 / MW-Hr at one point, the max the bidding market allows.

        It is mostly that serious cold is rare enough that everyone gets complacent in the off-years and fails to do winterize equipment properly. Then, when the bad weather is on us, it’s too late.

        That, and the fact that 80% of the wind power was knocked out by wind turbines that were iced up. If you have cold surface temperatures at the surface causing the turbines to get well below freezing, but higher temperatures at altitude, allowing rain to fall. The rain sticks to surfaces and freezes into a layer of ice and the turbines grind to a halt. I actually saw photographs of helicopters flying over turbines, spraying de-icing material on the blades. This doesn’t seem particularly renewable to me.

        The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, also seems to have also been deficient in planning and enforcing its regulations.

        The neighborhood I live in has been without power for 36 hours now with temperatures as low as 8F. Not pleasant.

        We need more nukes, not more turbines.

        1. >> That, and the fact that 80% of the wind power was knocked out by wind turbines that were iced up.

          Actually, you can’t blame the wind turbines. According to figures posted by ERCOT yesterday, wind power was providing about 5200 Mw around midnight last night, and around 3000Mw at noon – well in excess of what they typically expect from wind power at this time of year.

          True, there _are_ some turbines out of service – several hundred are reported down – but there are always some down, and out of an overall fleet of about 11,400 this is to be expected.

          Also, I don’t know what photographs you’ve seen of helicopters spraying de-icing on turbines, but the one that seems to be making the rounds is a from a Twitter post
          by some dude who’s mocking the idea of green wind turbines needing help from a helicopter.

          The only problem is that this photograph is from 2014. In Sweden. Being de-iced for maintenance.

          Most large turbines actually have a de-icing system built in, since they have the same issues as airplane wings and icing is a totally predictable issue in a 200 foot blade rotating through frosty great plains air for days at a time.

          Don’t get me wrong, ice and crappy winter weather _is_ definitely a factor for wind turbines, but it really doesn’t seem to be in play as a major issue in Texas at the moment. For the most part, most of the state’s 11K+ turbines seem to be doing exactly what they’re designed to do – taking advantage of a windy day.

        2. “We need more nukes, not more turbines.”

          You need to *not have the smallest freaking grid in the contiguous US*.

          Texas’s grid is so small that basically the entire power generation system can be hit by a single storm. Why do you think it’s *possible* to make that reliable?

          1. Right, because no one in the western interconnection has ever had to experience rolling blackouts…

            On the other hand, what is it about 0F and snow that makes it impossible to run a power plant? Yeah it’s very cold, but the snow was not a lot by most standards. I still haven’t heard a great explanation for why all these plants dropped off.

          2. “Right, because no one in the western interconnection has ever had to experience rolling blackouts…”

            Of course they have. The difference is that they can respond to the fundamental issues causing it. The Texas interconnect can’t.

            The large scale rolling blackouts that happened in California in the early 2000s were the result of bad actors: literally fraud. *Any* grid’s going to be susceptible to that, especially one with minimal oversight (it’s not like ERCOT exerts *more* oversight than FERC). And even with that, they still responded to it by *improving* the overall interconnect capacity.

            If you’re referring to last year’s rolling blackouts, that’s totally disingenous. Those were *real* rolling blackouts – as in, a couple of hours. Texas did *not* have ‘rolling blackouts’ – they essentially just flat out shut off the state. Calling those “rolling blackouts” is just crap – it’s grid collapse. You don’t get to literally shut off ~25+% of the state for *days* and say “our grid survived!”

            Rolling blackouts in extreme events happens. The SPP region had them during this storm too. Texas didn’t have rolling blackouts. They had a large-scale shutdown.

      4. This is so true. I live in Oklahoma. We had 2 plants go down due to damage one year. They were discussing rolling blackouts. When asked about the new plant that had been built. they responded that it wasn’t theirs, and power would have to be bought at a premium from another company. The rolling blackouts were cheaper. The other plant was on the same grid, but sold its power to another state(Not texas).

        1. Should be noted that there were rolling blackouts in Oklahoma now as well, but they were brief and needed just to manage regional load. Being connected to a larger grid doesn’t necessarily mean you’re immune to issues like this (grids aren’t magic, after all, and you don’t *design* the grid to draw all the power from somewhere else) but it certainly mitigates things.

          1. If anyone remembers the rolling blackouts in California about twenty years ago, maybe they can explain how being part of a huge grid allowed that to happen, but only in California. The point is that being part of a large grid doesn’t provide the blackout protection you think it should.

          2. You… you do realize those blackouts were the result of market manipulation and led to multibillion dollar lawsuits against the power company, a total reorganization of the way that power’s handled there and massive interconnect improvements to prevent that from happening again, right?

            “The point is that being part of a large grid doesn’t provide the blackout protection you think it should.”

            Yeah. You need to be part of a large grid with strong regulatory oversight to make sure no one’s gaming the system. You can *imagine* how well that’d go over in Texas.

            I mean… those blackouts were literally caused by the equivalent of a bad guy in moustache going “meh heh heh” and flipping the switch to shut off power to people in order to make money. It has nothing to do with grid-scale reliability.

      5. “if you don’t like it, buy a generator!” – that seems to be the way to go in developing countries. A few years ago, when traveling was still allowed, in India (Goa) nearly every shop or place we stayed had a generator or battery back up because of the regular power outages (several per day).
        I did not know, that USA tries to reach the level of India.

    2. Why would you think that 6 days of sub freezing weather in South Texas would be predictable? We were expecting 2 days. Everyone that I know was caught off guard. Nobody was prepared for this. I realize that the weather we are having is not really that bad compared to Idaho or North Dakota but we are simply not prepared for it. I have lived in SE Texas for 25 years and I’ve never seen snow on the ground more than a day. We’ve had snow on the ground here for 5 days now. You would be a fool to spend the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars that would be required to prepare a plant the size of STP for weather like this because weather like this never happens here.

  1. I’m sitting in north central Arkansas. It was -2 F this morning at 8 AM. I’ve never seen it below +5 F here before today. And I’ve seen 5 F only once. The typical low during a winter is 15 F. However, we sit at the boundary between the polar and equatorial weather systems. This makes it , well, interesting. We have often had several inches of snow and 3-4 days later it was all gone and 70 F. I’ve seen it go from sunny and 72 F at 11 AM to 30 F and snowing at 4 PM.

    The thing that *will* shutdown a nuclear power plant is ice breaking the transmission lines. About 8 years ago there was an ice storm that broke 38,000 utility poles across the northern part of Arkansas. It took 3 weeks of hard work to get everyone back on the grid. To me the scariest weather is 30 F and raining. The only thing that compares is living on the coast with a hurricane coming. You don’t know what will happen, but you know that it is not going to be good.

  2. Um, you certainly don’t “power down the entire state and restarting all its generators in synchronisation.” That’s complete nonsense.

    Power stations and generators are routinely being taken online and synchronized to the grid as needed, the DC interconnects in the article are an exception and their primary role is not phase synchronization but higher efficiency at very high voltages used.

    If you need to synchronize an AC generator to the grid you spin it up and then there is a control system that will speed it up/slow it down as needed until the frequency and phase of its output match with the grid voltage. This can be done manually by the operator watching some instrument and manipulating the generator controls or automatically these days.

    See this article describing the process:

    1. That only works if your are synchronising one generator to the grid. If you are synchronising two entire grids, then not. The UK has interconnects with France, Denmark, and Norway. I think there may be one to Ireland. Who synchronises to whom? All the interconnects are DC. There are AC interconnects on the Continent, but they are being replaced with DC as they age out.

      1. That is why you have the DC interconnections. So you don’t have to be ‘synced’ with your neighbour.. AC to DC back to AC. Just need to be synched in the area you are responsible for.

      2. One of the main reasons for going to DC in the case of undersea cables is due to losses.

        DC doesn’t exhibit the skin effect, and AC coupling between the lines isn’t a thing to worry about either.
        These two alone removes a lot of losses that AC would have on top of the issues of frequency and phase.

          1. The skin depth at 50Hz in copper is only about 9.2mm.
            Ie, an undersea cable that has a core diameter larger than 18mm would have a benefit from running DC over AC just due to the skin effect alone.

            At 60Hz, the depth is a bit less deep, at only 8.4mm.

            That inductive losses is also huge is true.
            But even some non undersea cables do use DC to save in on resistive losses.

          2. The conductivity of the water could only incur capacitive losses. Also a seawater ground return does not require DC. In fact it would work better with AC, because no electrolysis would occur.

          3. Electrolysis depends on voltage over distance. In transmission systems, the current is so distributed (no sudden transitions) that there isn’t any point where the voltage difference would be enough to split water.

      3. The transmission line is limit by the peak voltage before you’ll get corona discharge / arcing / breakdown etc. The peak for a sinusoidal voltage is sqrt(2) time its rms value. A DC feed can therefore be run at 41%higher voltage than the AC RMS. This helps to maximize the capacity of a transmission line.

      4. Western Europe is all one big synchronous grid. Eastern Europe at the times of Warsaw pact was not. Therefore, we had a short-DC-link station in Austria to transfer power. Now they are also synchronous.
        Not synchronous are UK, Ireland Scandinavia (Norway) and baltic states.

        But it is possible to synchronize entire grids. According to Wikipedia (only german) on 8. January, there was split somewhere in Croatia with frequency deviations to 49,74 and 50,6 Hz and a power imbalance of 6,3GW.
        It took about 63min to re-synchronize and reconnect the grids, but it was possible without a blackout.

        1. Only just. It took calling for emergency reserves from Norway and UK, and shutting down large industrial loads from France and Italy to stabilize the situation. If there had been one more fault in the grid, or some major maintenance work going on, it would have resulted in a cascade failure and blackouts across the entire European synchronous grid.

          The European synchronous grid is running on good luck at this point.

          1. It never failed me in any major way I can remember in the last ~35 years. ;-)
            And from what I understand it’s one of the best / most stable grids in the world (a relative of mine worked for AEG/Alstom/Areva/Schneider in that field).

            > It took …. shutting down large industrial loads from France and Italy

            Afaik those big industrial loads are specifically “designed” (technical, contracts, etc.) to be powered down in such situations.

            In other words: They are a default tools at the hands of the grid maintainers to use whenever necessary to keep it stable (not just in-demand power generation but also in-demand load-reducing).

            Do you have some follow up sources from after that whole debacle?
            I followed it a bit while it was happening (clocks drifting because they were running to slow) but I cant recall reading any comprehensiveness analysis of what happened…

    2. How true. Every year our company goes through ‘black start’ training where the dispatchers via simulation start at a location in the state, and get units on-line, then add ‘some’ load (towns) and then move on down the line. Not simple by any-means.

      As a programmer I helped with writing hydro synchronization code (using special hardware) to auto-sync to the bus. Fun to watch. First match voltage as it spins up to speed no load, and then matching frequency (hands off watching the lead/lag scope for the first attempt is heart thumping) and then if computer thinks all is okay, close the breaker. What you want to hear is just a little ‘clunk’. Remember the grid is a lot more powerful than your ‘generator’. You aren’t going to move the grid! So closing ‘out of phase’ … like 180 out can do a lot of damage to the generator.

    3. “This can be done manually by the operator watching some instrument and manipulating the generator controls or automatically these days.”

      Or, the operator watches 3 neon lamps bridged between in generator and grids 3 phases, and when the neons stop flashing, throws the switch.

  3. Texas really needs a program like OhmConnect to reward people for conserving energy when its supply and/or delivery is being stressed. Or more directly, offer to pay people to voluntarily disconnect from the grid (running from a generator or batteries) so those without the means will have more reliable power.

    Of which, how many here are hacking stuff together to keep essentials running? I cobbled together a few adapters to connect some Nissan Leaf modules in parallel with the backup battery for my network equipment so it can stay on for longer. (Next hack: add a relay to automatically connect/disconnect it.)

      1. Well, that *does* depend. You need storage capacity and a very robust, and relatively fine-meshed grid; a lot of Megawatt wind turbines and solar sites distributed across the second largest US state and buffered by plenty hydroelectric storage plants are not inherently significantly less reliable than single-point-of-failure Gigawatt plants. But that requires you to be able to store and release large amounts of energy, and to get it across a grid that looks more like a decentralized netting than the Amtrak train net.

        Either way, you need to start with a more reliable grid. While building that, do make sure you can integrate a metric effton of renewable sources as soon as they get built; there’s a 100 year chance in grid construction you’ll regret not taking. Worst case, you’re right, and as a side-effect, you get one of the most robust power grids for which it’s easiest to accommodate industry wherever it should pop up.

      2. What we actually need is a baseline consisting of more storage capacity associated with renewables. Increasing coal/gas is a waste of capital, nuclear is too expensive, and hydro doesn’t have the capacity.

        1. Solar and wind can neither supply capacity nor is it capable of baseline energy, period. What happened in texas shows just how worthless your approach would be. It would also kill people by the thousands during a artic storm like this one.

      3. (glances at map)

        Texas has the smallest grid in the contiguous US. By *far*. And it’s currently experiencing what will probably be the worst blackout in US history. Hurricane Sandy *flattened* the eastern US, and it peaked at something like 10% of the region seriously hit, with the majority of the outages coming from downed power lines. Texas is something like 25% of all customers are out of power *right now* – over two days in – and we’re not talking about massive downed power lines.

        C’mon. These two things are related. The problem isn’t the power sources. It’s the lack of interconnect.

    1. … that is a desirable thing?!

      Admittedly, Texas is huge, and as German one might be spoiled by huge return-on-investments on public infrastructure, but the answer seems to be “Texas really needs to spend money on a significantly more robust grid, and on interchange points with other regional grids, be that direct AC links or HVDC”, not “they should let the invisible hand of the market compensate for lack of investment in infrastructure”, as the latter just hampers economic growth.

      (NB: I’ve been to the U.S., including Texas. I’d agree, there need to be waaaaay more incentives to use less energy. But these should aim at reducing total energy consumption, not encourage people to switch from grid to even dirtier local diesel generators…)

      1. >>> “but the answer seems to be “Texas really needs to spend money on a significantly more robust grid…”

        I lived in Austin for 5 years. While Texas is not the caricature it’s often made out to be, the fact remains that Texas is _definitely not_ into spending money on infrastructure.

        At least not into spending money on infrastructure that does not immediately benefit a politician or his close buddies. Dallas might do a tax deal to spend a billion dollars on a new stadium – football is important, after all – but a billion dollars on roads, bridges and _power lines!?!_ , fuggedaboutit.

        1. I mean, honestly, Austin seemed to me to be the least Texan of Texan cities, and you know, there *is* a load of infrastructure, and it seemed to be relatively liberal. (I do miss a couple of the bars in The Domain.)

          But yeah, at some point Texan industry will have to realize that neglecting public infra harms their own interests more than investing in (read: paying taxes for) that costs. One might hope.

          It’s interesting that some other comment wrote that energy suppliers just wouldn’t build a more robust grid, because the money they lose on outages like this would not outweigh the savings of not building it. As a European, that problem rarely arises: you don’t get a concession to build and operate a grid if you’re not verifiably guaranteeing reliable access to everyone. Hasn’t really stopped any German power company to become huge molochs, often with questionable methods and ties to politics. But: German grid policy is extremely focused on “Versorgungssicherheit” (supply security) and that has had rather positive effects on actual supply (can’t *remember* the last time I had a power outage. Seriously.), and negative effects on willingness to build “smart grid” (i.e. a grid fine and flexible enough to allow for decentralized energy production and consumption by renewables and electric vehicles, respectively).

          1. >German grid policy is extremely focused on “Versorgungssicherheit” (supply security)

            And yet it outsources most of this to neighboring countries. There’s massive closures on gas and coal power, huge build-up of renewable power, and the German grid is running dangerously short of dispatch-able capacity to deal with any sort of large scale disturbance.

            >(can’t *remember* the last time I had a power outage. Seriously.)

            2006 continent-wide cascading power failure, started from wind farms in northern Germany. You almost had one last month as well – this time because of Croatia causing the EU grid to split into north-west and south-east parts that went out of sync- which narrowly avoided a full blackout like last time.

          2. > And yet it outsources most of this to neighboring countries.

            That’s certifiably false:


            We’ve got 51.8% of energy from renewable sources. In 2020, our electricity imports rose by 43% (!) but we’re still a net energy exporter.

            The narrative that’s usually brought up with this is “oh yeah, and nice that you’re going clean energy, and then supply your base demand through French nuclear power from so-old-it-hurts plants”, and the answer is: You know what splits from the net every summer when it’s too hot and every winter when it’s too cold, has an affinity for good food and is slightly radioactive?

            We actually don’t. We (sadly) still have plenty of fossil fuel plants, and even a lot of coal plants that are waiting for redispatch should anything large-scale happen. This whole story of “renewables are hurting our reliability today” is a bunch of hogwash.

            > 2006 continent-wide cascading power failure, started from wind farms in northern Germany.

            And, ho, boy, did we learn from that (sorry I didn’t count 14 years ago as “in my memory”).

            Reminder that this started due to insufficient grid capacity, and not insufficient wind.

            > You almost had one last month as well

            We might have very different definitions of “almost”. I see a safety system working as planned, you say we nearly had an outage. Might be a matter of interpretation.

          3. >We’ve got 51.8% of energy from renewable sources. In 2020, our electricity imports rose by 43% (!) but we’re still a net energy exporter.

            I fail to see how that makes your point.

            The argument wasn’t that Germany is depending on outsourced power on a net trade basis, but that you’re dependent on the EXCHANGE of power with neighboring countries. The ability to shuttle power out and back again is the very reason why you’re is able to produce half the energy from renewables – at least on paper. This is called the “Virtual Battery” – you sell when you have it and you buy back when you don’t – and in this case you end up with a net positive trade balance. That doesn’t change the situation though.

            Half the domestic consumption for Germany is about 40 million people worth of electricity, and on the greater European synchronous grid that gets diluted into a market of 500 million consumers, which is just 8% of the total.

          4. >I see a safety system working as planned, you say we nearly had an outage. Might be a matter of interpretation.

            I see network operators calling danger and warning you that the grid is getting less and less stable every year as more traditional dispatchable generators are taken offline and replaced with wind and solar power.

            Also, how’s that power corridor project going? Did you finally manage to link up north and south, or is it still NIMBY all the way? As I recall, wind turbines in the north have to supply consumers in the south by making a detour through France anyways.

          5. >We’ve got 51.8% of energy from renewable sources.

            And on that point, if you want to know how much ENERGY as opposed to ELECTRICITY you actually got from renewable sources, that’s just around 13-14%. This is because the power prices in Germany are insane with all the taxes and surcharges used to pay the subsidies, and people are switching or keeping to natural gas wherever they can.

            In the last ten years the consumption has gone up from 75 million cubic meters to 93 million cubic meters per year, which is an increase of +24%

          6. >And, ho, boy, did we learn from that

            Did you? Here’s another near-miss:


            >”For three days in June 2019, the electricity grid came close to black-outs. “Only short-term imports from neighboring countries were able to stabilize the grid,” the consultancy notes. As a result of Germany’s energy supply shortage, the highest observed cost of short-term “balancing energy” skyrocketed from €64 in 2017 to €37,856 in 2019.”

            >”German utilities too are warning of insecure supply. “By 2023 at the latest, we will be running with eyes wide open into a shortfall in secure capacity,” a managing director for the Germany energy industry association BDEW said.”

          7. @Dude
            Please cite some sources and not just a a report by “Mc Kinsey” (as if I trust those suckers).

            My image / what I know of the power grid in western Europe pretty much aligns with [Marcus].

            You repeatedly stated the grid is getting worse / less stable. Where is this coming from? Personal experience / interpretation / ??? ?

            The major blackout in 2006 was for 2 (in words TWO) measly f*cking hours! And it had nothing to do with wind turbines but a (mis-)planned disconnect of a 380kV line over the river Ems.

  4. > their AC frequency and phase must both match exactly in order for a connection to work

    Not quite. At the moment you make the connection, yes, but in general an AC grid will have frequency and phase differences all over the place.

    When one region of the grid is leading another, power is transferred from that region to the lagging region until the frequency there increases. This is because generators have to lead the grid phase slightly to output power – otherwise they’re just spinning along, matching the local grid voltage at any given moment and not putting out any current because there’s no difference.

    A phase difference in an AC grid is like a voltage difference in a DC grid. It sets the direction of the current flow. In order to make a phase difference, there grid frequency must change. This is why the grid frequency fluctuates over time.

    The troubles start when you have a lot of “synthetic” generators on the grid that don’t respond to frequency changes like normal spinning generators. In other words, inverters: wind turbines and solar panels, which can generate any arbitrary voltage and phase. They try to emulate regular generators, but they can’t handle the transient power demands like a big hunk of spinning turbine can, so they tend to drop suddenly without warning. When one drops out, it causes other inverters to drop out, which leads to a cascade failure and suddenly your grid goes down. In theory they can operate collectively like a big generator, if all the inverters are evenly loaded, but this is often not the case and there will be a weak link somewhere that goes and the whole thing unravels.

    1. And so it is, that not all is well in the massive interconnected grid in Europe either. The whole EU synchronized grid came just inches from collapse on January 8. 2021 – almost repeating the cascade failure of 2006. This time the fault started with a broken substation in Croatia.

      >“The problem isn’t posed by growing green electricity directly but by shrinking conventional capacity,” said Eglantine Kuenle, chief electricity systems modeler at the EWI Institute of Energy Economics at Cologne University. “The upshot is a gap in secure power generation and grid balancing that must be fixed.”

      >”Spinning turbines of thermal plants connected to the grid create kinetic energy called inertia which helps keep the network at the right frequency. This spinning can’t be created by wind turbines or solar panels and policy makers need to find ways to incentivize other forms of energy storage or flexible output.”

      1. Though the article is slightly incorrect: wind turbines CAN temporarily increase their power output on command regardless of the wind, because they have inertia in the air mass. However, this has a big penalty because it causes a blockade for the incoming wind and the next moment the output drops drastically.

        Solar panels can’t, so if there’s a sudden increase in demand, they just drop out.

        1. The wind turbines are frozen solid, as in not turning.

          On the news here in Texas we got to watch workers use drones to spray ice melt (like an airliner) trying to get them turning at all.

          1. Yes, it is well known that wind turbines only work in hot countries, like Canada, Sweden and Denmark (alternatively it maybe they skimped a bit on the cold weather protection when they bought them)


            Truth is, turbines are very weather resistant, unlike power lines, train lines to coal plants, gas pipelines etc

          2. The side effect of using wind turbines in freezing conditions is that they exhibit “parasite power”, which is the amount they draw to keep from freezing over during the dead winter calms. You need about 6 m/s winds to generate significant power, but during the worst cold spells you’ll have at best 1-3 m/s winds and the turbines are consuming more power than they are producing.

        2. “Solar panels can’t, so if there’s a sudden increase in demand, they just drop out.”

          I mean, they *could*. Even a single panel could. Just run the panels slightly off the maximum power point, and under load, increase demand by shifting back to max power (or pointlessly dump the excess power to heat or something). That’s how any autonomous solar system works when batteries are full. Or just like, not connect certain panels. (Similarly with wind, just load dump some turbines).

          But, well, that would be a bit silly because you’re of course better off finding a way to store power rather than just hold it in reserve (see, for instance, the Australian Tesla utility scale battery banks). And in places with required buys of solar power, it’d be *immensely* stupid to do it that way – you’re just tossing money.

          There’s nothing “fundamental” about solar and wind (+energy storage, obviously) not being able to provide capacity on demand. Coal, gas, and nuclear can’t provide excess power “on demand” if they’re running at their absolute maximums either. It’s just how things are designed currently.

          You build coal/gas/nuclear plants with massive excess capacity and run them nominally under that, because *using* the excess capacity would cost money, and you don’t do that with wind/solar. Claiming “solar panels+an MPPT provide their maximum power without you having to do anything” as a *drawback* is… odd.

          1. >Just run the panels slightly off the maximum power point / or pointlessly dump the excess power

            Yeah, but that’s asking the owners to throw away income. For the power dumping scenario, that is actually happening and we’re paying the producers to do that. Otherwise they would sell even at negative prices to collect the subsidies.

          2. “Yeah, but that’s asking the owners to throw away income.”

            Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say – the problem isn’t the technology, it’s the idiotic market that’s been built. The idea that coal/gas/nuclear/etc. are somehow “better” because they can respond to load changes better is silly.

            You just need excess capacity. Whether you pay for it by asking coal/gas/nuclear plants to be built and operate at partial capacity or by asking solar/wind projects to be built and operate at partial capacity doesn’t matter. Contract out capacity on timescales, pay for it (and claw it back if it’s claimed and not delivered), and pay for electricity delivered.

            Treating solar/wind/etc. differently doesn’t make sense, in the long term. Obviously in the short term some market forcing was needed, but pretending that coal/gas/etc. should get a bonus for having excess capacity “just cuz” while denying the same possibility to any other plant is silly. (I’m not saying that’s what you’ve said, there are many laws proposed across the country to do this).

          3. > it’s the idiotic market that’s been built

            This “idiotic market” is the only reason why these technologies are economically sustainable. Importing on the cheap from China and running them at maximum output and maximum subsidies through net metering, and investment tax credits etc. is the reason why it pays back in 20 years instead of 50 years after the panels are long gone.

            If the selling price for the electricity followed the proper market mechanism, most producers wouldn’t be able to sell because all panels output power at the same time (when the sun is up), so they have to be provided fixed prices, which removes the incentive to control power output. You just sell everything you got to sell to get the net metering or the tax credits, and disregard what that is doing to the stability of the electric grid.

          4. >Treating solar/wind/etc. differently doesn’t make sense

            What would make a difference is if someone were able to buy huge amounts of power at arbitrary times, because wind and solar tend to produce all at the same time over huge geographic areas, which leads to regular over-production and a collapse in the going market value of the power.

            As it is, they can only sustain themselves by fixed prices and subsidies. The curtailment of peak output means raising the power prices otherwise, and that puts wind and solar at a higher price than conventional power, which means utilities have no reason to buy it.

          5. “This “idiotic market” is the only reason why these technologies are economically sustainable.”

            Psst: did you miss the “obviously in the short term some market forcing was needed” part?

            There are literally laws in US states to effectively give subsidies to natural gas/coal/etc. plants because of the belief that they “stabilize the grid” with excess capacity, which is insane: *any* plant with excess capacity stabilizes the grid. Singling out natural gas/coal/etc. is crazy.

            “most producers wouldn’t be able to sell because all panels output power at the same time (when the sun is up),”

            So what? You’re acting as if we don’t understand how to store energy. In the current market, storage of excess supply is a *supplier* problem. That’s part of the insanity of the market: energy storage for demand surges is a *grid* problem, not a *supplier* problem. Energy storage should be part of grid design, and covered in the economics of it.

            I mean, energy *storage* isn’t even the entire solution. We can transmit energy long distances really without much loss. Half of Los Angeles is freaking powered from nearly 1500 km away, and we’re a *joke* compared to China, which has 1500+ km long HVDC transmission lines crisscrossing it. There’s no reason that excess supply couldn’t be shunted east/west, smoothing things out dramatically. Regulators/scientists/engineers have been crowing about the lack of E/W interconnect for *years*.

            “What would make a difference is if someone were able to buy huge amounts of power at arbitrary times,”

            Again, the mistake you’re making here is assuming that excess and reserve management should be *supplier* problems. They’re grid issues, there should be grid solutions. Pay for reserve capacity and market solutions will show up. How do I know? Because they *already have* – the Hornsdale Power Reserve’s working *fantastic* in Australia. And that’s *only* using arbitrage, which is purely market-based!

          6. Actually as good as Nuclear is it can’t regulate a grid and provide power on demand either, it takes a substantial time to bump up the power output. Gas is quicker, but still lags – actually the best things for regulating the grid are batteries and gravity stores like pumped hydro currently (though compressed air can also feature, its not widely deployed).

            So in many ways the renewable grid with the right investment should be more stable, and cheaper (far less wasted capacity), you just need to make the grid connections as a whole across nations stable, and have redundancy – so the energy trade from the currently sunny/windy to the places that need more can reliable happen, and any failure can’t cascade, or at least resets rapidly afterwards (ideally fast enough that end users get so little power out they assume its a blip in their office’s UPS or breaker…

      2. In my whole 30 year life, the only time the european grid failed, was that one time in 2006.
        Despite the things you say, it is performing admirably. It is a fact that big plants are needed for synchronisation, but don’t forget we have those too.

        1. See:

          The situation was saved by an emergency scram of some large industrial users in France and Italy, and activating emergency reserves from Norway. If there had been one more fault in the system, this would have been a repeat of the 2006 blackout but we got lucky and the system was fully operational at the time of the fault.

          1. “The safety net worked, “but such fire-fighting operations are not a viable long-term business model,” warned Wien Energie managing director Michael Strebl. “Thank God it went well again,” said Werner Hengst, Managing Director of Netz Niederösterreich GmbH. “We estimate that the situation will get worse in the next few years.”

            The reason is the strong expansion of volatile renewable electricity generation and the elimination of large backup power plants in Europe. The output of 50 gigawatts going offline in Europe corresponds to “more than two hundred Danube power plants”. According to Wien Energie, the electricity grids are exposed to ever greater fluctuations. The number of emergency operations has increased from around 15 to up to 240 per year in recent years.”

      3. If lack of spinning turbines with inertia were truly the problem, then flywheel energy storage would solve it pretty easily. Coal fired plants are not even purpose gulf energy storage facilities, I’m sure we could do far better, and for far less money with dedicated flywheels, or even just retrofitted coal plants converted to flywheel stations.

        Especially when we have full freedom to put them wherever we want, with no concern for cooling or fuel sources. Who’s even making that level of transient loads anyway? Why aren’t we telling them to stop?

        1. A flywheel offers a temporary buffer against some transient power fluctuations, but they can’t add to the output in a sustained manner for long enough to deal with system disconnects, and they waste a load of power (relative to their capacity) while standing by. An old coal power station converted to a big flywheel would not be the same thing as the old station was – because part of the “inertia” of the system comes from the “spinning reserve”: power plants are mandated to keep some headroom for reserve to respond to sudden load increases, and they can temporarily run the plant a little over the design specs if they have to.

          Wind and solar generators on the other hand have a hard cut-off. They make whatever power is available, no more, and typically no less – especially in Germany, with their right-of-way laws: grids have to accept the power.

          >Who’s even making that level of transient loads anyway? Why aren’t we telling them to stop?

          A transient load or a transient supply is the same effect. For the supply side transients, we are subsidizing them to do exactly that – telling them to stop would be politically impossible because you’re instantly binned with anti-progressive loonies, climate deniers, right wing nationalists and what not. You can’t stop progress, even if we’re progressing towards a system failure, because there’s too much money involved in paying subsidies to big green energy corporations. Break their business model and you break your bones.

          For the other part, grid transients are kinda like rogue waves on the ocean – it’s multiple random sources summing up and the effect is multiplied by a system defect somewhere, such as a failing substation, or an interconnect that is taken out of use because of maintenance etc.

      1. No, the frequency has to differ to produce a phase difference in the first place.

        The -average- frequency is the same, but in order for one area to lead another, it must have a temporary frequency advance to build up a difference in phase.

        1. Or, if two runners maintain the same distance between each other, they have to run at the same speed. However, if one is to catch up and take the lead, they must run faster for some time. In this way, parts of the grid are always playing lead and catch in frequency depending on who is producing more or consuming more.

          If the system is not well regulated, this leads to the overall system frequency drifting off of the 50/60 Hz standard, so the producers in different countries have to coordinate and adjust to keep the average frequency over time to the mutually agreed standard, while at the same time maintaining their mutual power trade balance

          One proposed way to deal with the variability of renewable power is to relax the frequency standard, so different areas can maintain under/over production for longer without corrective action. It’s essentially allowing countries and producers to build up “power debt”.

        2. The grid is pretty much like a huge flywheel in terms of its frequency stability. There is so much inertia that a node can barely change its speed by pushing/pulling power from it. That’s is the case when the system is stable.

          Think of it this way, the grid probably have enough stiff to pull the load of a node and run the generators in the nodes as motors if the slip anlge is big enough.

  5. Hi yes this is your friendly reminder that nuclear power is green and does not leave you freezing to death when it gets cold outside. Can we all agree to stop pushing garbage green energy plans and migrate to sensible nuclear power to save the earth. That will be all.

      1. Sensible nuclear power was the phrase used, we’ve got halfassed nuclear at the moment. Sensible is where we lose the hangups about reprocessing and the final waste goes back in the uranium mine, less active than when it came out.

          1. That’s exactly the point that is requested for change, so your counter-argument is simply denying the premise.

            France re-processes nuclear waste, which puts 96% of if back to use and the rest is technically easy to dispose of in deep boreholes (where not prohibited). Why is this possible there and not in the US?

    1. “Hi yes this is your friendly reminder that nuclear power is green and does not leave you freezing to death when it gets cold outside.”

      Except for, y’know, the one in Texas that… actually did.

      On a separate note, using Texas as an example of *anything* other than “tiny grids are stupid” is probably a horrible idea. Texas obviously has *extremely* favorable conditions for solar power, for instance, but nowhere near the generation fraction of many other states. Oh, and the solar utility-scale plants? They don’t have any issues currently.

      Most of Texas’s current power issues are caused by Texas’s politics.

      1. More than three quarters of the nuclear capacity in Texas was unaffected by the fault in a single reactor.

        The effect of a reactor tripping would be smaller if there were more reactors. Redundancy is a factor, but the regulatory environment for nuclear power does not favor redundancy and instead forces huge unit sizes where a fault in one system causes a significant portion of the capacity to go offline.

        1. “More than three quarters of the nuclear capacity in Texas was unaffected by the fault in a single reactor.”

          Or, said, another way, nearly 25% of the nuclear capacity in Texas *was* affected. Oh, and Texas’s grid operates with less than 20% margin on capacity as a whole. So, yeah, 25% loss is like, bad.

          And of course the solar supply in Texas is sitting there like “Guys? Guys? Like, zero problems here, guys? You do know you’re like, basically the best state in the contiguous US for solar power, right?”

  6. “The solution when transferring power between grids is therefore to convert it to DC for the intermediate stage, then back to AC at the correct grid frequency and phase.”

    Is actually not the only way to send power between two grids of differing phase or frequency.

    If the phase offset is 120 degrees, then our first phase has just moved to the second or third. (in a regular three phase grid that is. And this phase change can be stable since transmission lines introduce a delay, but for this to be practical, our grid must have a very very long loop in it for this to be a thing…)

    Another more realistic way is via a motor generator setup.
    One can even have a gearbox between them to handle frequency conversion. Or a CVT if one wants to get really fancy.
    Downside the the peak working voltage of our motor, and the power our mechanical linkage can handle.

    Converting to DC has other advantages on the other hand. Usually in regards to running longer transmission lines. Since DC doesn’t exhibit the skinn effect, nor any AC coupling between our lines.

    1. A cycloconverter or a variable frequency transformer are two other ways to do the interconnect. If you don’t actually need to transmit the power any distance, they are both simpler than a full-up conversion to DC and back.

      1. Reactive phase shifts are also possible (huge capacitor banks).

        Switzerland runs phase shifting transformers along the border with Germany to stop German wind power from looping through the country whenever there’s a transient power surge (or dip) in production.

    2. another benefit of converting to dc could be battery storage at the interconnect
      both grids could charge the battery (in the middle)
      both grids could also pull from the battery or the other grid also

          1. Batteries are made up of cells. It’s not practically feasible to make a million volt battery because it has to consist of individual 3.7 Volt cells, and stringing that many in series makes balancing the cells infeasible.

          1. The more cells you have in series, the more difficult it is to keep them all in balance.

            The charge state of a cell does not exactly follow the current that flows through each cell because of variable leakage and imperfect coulombic efficiency: less than 100% of the current goes to driving the chemical reactions, and this varies by the cell.

            A few cells in series is manageable, up to some dozens of volts, but after that you have to break it up into modules with individual shunts and BMS to keep the cells balanced. In other words, you have to split the million volts into couple hundred volts for each module, and then build that back up to a million volts for transmission – and that’s a hugely complicated, ridiculously expensive and a wasteful system.

    1. Or Germany. Neighboring countries are installing phase shifting transformers at the network interlinks to control the amount of power that Germany can dump on or demand of them through under/over production, resulting in higher power fluctuations within Germany.

      The north and south grids within Germany are separated because of NIMBY reasons for building new power lines, so the wind power producers in the north are shunting power around through Belgium, France, Poland, etc. to serve customers in the south, using their transmission capacity, which is becoming increasingly crowded as these countries are also trying to increase the portion of renewable power in their grids.

      The “Energiewiende” in Germany has largely relied on using the rest of the EU as their virtual battery, by leaning heavily on power trade to avoid all the costs of grid stabilization and pretend that the system is sound and working in principle.

  7. As a Texan, the issue is not as simple as you present.

    Wind turbines are frozen solid, not turning period – that alone took 25% of our generating capacity off-line.

    Solar panels on home roofs don’t generate electricity when they are covered in snow. (Does anyone go on their food in a snow storm to shovel their solar panels?)

    Apparently parts of the electrical grid require warmers in cold weather – the warmers don’t work in near-zero temperatures.

    And the power grid in TX may be independent, but just a quick glance at your interconnection chart shows at least two or three geographic areas as large or smaller than the Texas region.

    The answer is power generation diversity, the problem in Texas was a lack of imagination that we would endure a foot of snowfall in near-zero temperatures over an extended period (several days). Just out of curiosity, is the northeast power grid designed for a five day 110 degree stretch? Probably not, it’s just not a likely scenario worth preparing for.

      1. If I were a rich man, I’d buy a new furnace.
        But this is HackaDay.
        Don’t Kvetch. Get out there and fix it!
        I spent the whole day fiddling on the roof.
        It’s a tradition.
        To life!

    1. Ultimately power generation has to be zero carbon, and pretty quickly. You’ll probably have to face more similar situations in the future, because the jet stream is becoming less stable due to global heating (see work done by Jennifer francis of rutgers uni). Meanwhile, Texan turbines freeze because they’re not designed with sub-zero temps in mind. Good article about this on clean technica.

    2. I’ve been living in the San Antonio/Austin area since 1979. In my memory there was only one day when it did not go above 32F, and that was when I was in Austin. (that 80 miles or so can make a big difference in winter weather) Three days without ever going above freezing is unheard of, and just as rare as three days of 110 highs in the northeast. What thaw has happened was because of clear sunny skies.

      I had no problem staying warm because my house has gas heat. Sure, that still requires power to run the fan, but if my neighborhood is mostly using gas heat, that may be why I haven’t had a single blackout.

      My problem this weekend was with water pipes freezing up. Apparently part of the run of my water supply goes through an exterior north wall near the water heater. I still don’t know where the freeze is, or if it will leak, and I won’t know until it thaws, which might not even be tomorrow. At least the house is old enough that the water goes through metal pipes, not plastic. Collecting water for hand washing and toilet tanks has required quite a few hacks on my part, and having a reverse osmosis filter that I had just refilled bottles from meant that I had about 8 gallons of drinking water.

      1. “At least the house is old enough that the water goes through metal pipes, not plastic. ”

        Try PEX when redoing. I use to have that problem every winter till I changed it. Don’t skimp on the connectors. Mine are brass. Far as freezing, naturally insulation, heat tape (there’s both exterior and a kind that fits inside the pipe).

    3. There is nothing inherent in a wind turbine that says it cannot work in cold weather. Wind turbines are common in Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, hardly warm weather countries. More likely the cold weather protection systems were left off the Texas ones has a money saving feature – I mean why would they be needed.

      So the fault is not with wind turbines per se – they are designed to be incredible robust, but the procurement and installation.

    4. >>> Wind turbines are frozen solid, not turning period – that alone took 25% of our generating capacity off-line.

      Well, as I’ve said, there definitely _are_ issues with some of the wind turbines being down.

      But there are 11,400 turbines om Texas.

      And according to the figures posted by ERCOT in the last few days, wind power was between 5300 and 3000Mw for the Monday-Tuesday period – well in excess of the expected availability of wind in February.

      The shortfall actually seems to be biggest with the mid-sized gas generators. There’s 50+ Mw of of gas generation potential in Texas, but it’s most useful in the summer, when everybody wants AC and – crucially – nobody want to run their gas furnace.

      It’s totally reasonable to build mid-sized power plants fueled by gas, but the unanticipated issue was that those gas plants went to crank up at the same time that millions of people went to turn on the gas furnace in their house, at the same time that gas producers – which are mandated to serve residential customers first – were struggling with running their facilities under a foot of ice-capped snow.

      So, yeah, once in a decade problem and it’s hard to get shareholders to justify spending money on that, kind of like how Portland shuts down once a decade because it makes no sense to maintain a fleet of hundreds of snowplows for a three-day event.

      Still… Just sayin…. woulda been nice if Texas could have tapped into the hundreds of millions of megawatts sitting around in Arizona, Nevada and California to support air conditioners that aren’t turned on in February.

  8. I am glad this sort of thing is happening, it will wake people up to what they will face when the next volcanic winter hits, except it will continue for several years and will probably be even colder at its worst. If you are going to rely on renewable energy you will eventually experience a period where only a battery holding several years worth of power will save you, assuming the cold does not destroy it too. Nuclear power (fission or ideally fusion) or deep geothermal boreholes is the only genuinely sustainable option that is resilient in the face of what history records as the conditions we do periodically face. Most sustainability options are a fraud, a facade that will collapse the moment things are less benign. Solar PV is also a cruel fraud because another known threat, solar flares, will destroy them due to the massive long lengths of conductors in a large PV facility. Do the maths on the induced voltages vs the fatal breakdown voltages for semiconductor junctions. Technically competent people need to put their politics aside and be realistic about this, or we face an event in the future that will threaten civilisation’s stability on a scale that is orders of magnitude worse than anything the modern world has ever experience. It really is just a matter of time and sustainable implies forever, not just until the next big natural or unnatural event that breaks all of our more convenient but fragile technology solutions.

    1. One of the contributing factors that I’ve not seen mentioned here yet with regard to temperature and suffering in Texas is that these houses in Texas aren’t insulated like, say, a house back east. These houses have thin windows and paltry insulation, designed to keep A/C bills low, rather than keep the house warm.

          1. “Anyway insulation keeps the heat out and the cool in.”

            *Some* insulation works that way. Others don’t. Radiant barriers, for instance, barely do anything to keep heat in, but work well for rejecting heat from outside. Given fixed $ to pay for weatherproofing, if you’ve only got to worry about cooling, you’ll make different choices.

  9. I recently read something very interesting on the importance of generator synchronization with the grid.

    The excellent book Sandworm, by Andy Greenberg (2019, Doubleday), is the history of Russia’s cyberwar on the Ukraine, including the blackout attack on the national grid on Christmas of 2015 and the devastating NotPetya malware attack in 2017. As backstory for the blackout attack, he recounts a secret experiment named “Aurora” that was carried out by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Department of Homeland Security, the DoD, and NERC in 2007. An INL engineer had theorized that if they introduced malicious code into a power plant, they could make it do a lot worse than shut down power. So they designed an experiment that would showcase how bad the problem could be, and to demonstrate the need for much higher security.

    The Idaho National Laboratory is a 890 square mile facility that maintains its own substantial power grid, including seven substations and 61 miles of transmission lines. It’s used for experimenting and testing grid scale equipment. The INL team bought a used generator from an Alaskan oil field (described as the size of a school bus), set it up in one of the substations, hooked it up to their grid, and started producing roughly enough electricity to power a hospital or navy ship. The researchers and VIPs observed (via camera feeds) from an auditorium about a mile away, and then introduced their malware into the generator. Once the malware saw the synchronzer was perfectly matched with the grid phase, it opened the circuit breaker to the generator. With its load suddenly removed, the generator sped up rapidly. And once the malware detected the generator was well out of phase with the grid, it closed the circuit breaker.

    The full force of the grid hit the generator like a giant hammer, causing the motor to violently slow down in a fraction of a second. They had left open the panels on the generator, and observers could see that the rubber grommet connecting the motor to the generator threw some black chunks; but it kept running. A few seconds later, once the malware detected the generator was back in sync with the grid, it repeated its attack. This time the generator began to emit gray smoke. A few seconds later and a third strike from the malware hit the machine. An engineer observing the proceedings pronounced “the prime mover is toast.” A fourth cycle from the malware completed the destruction; a cloud of black smoke rose 30 feet above the dead generator, and the researchers ended the test.

    Analysis revealed the engine’s shaft had collided with the engine’s internal wall, leaving deep gouges and filling the case with metal shavings. The generator’s insulation had melted and burned. The $300,000 machine was totaled in less than a minute by a 140k malicious program.

  10. Lots of good thoughts here, but there is a relavent point that needs to be made. I’m 45 miles north of the Texas border. Last night set the new record for the coldest temperature ever seen in my town. (-12F, btw).

    This is a unique event, and things are working remarkably well, considering that. Lessons will be learned, and hopefully politics stays out of the way of fixing things.

    1. “This is a unique event, and things are working remarkably well, considering that. ”

      Yeah, you might want to take a look at that map of the US grid above, and locate yourself on that. If you’re north of the Texas border, you’re not on the Texas grid. Other states had issues too, but they’re *super* minor compared to what Texas is going through.

      1. Correct, I’m on the SPP(Southwest Power Pool) Grid, which had some rolling blackouts, but not to the extent the Texas grid did. I do, however, have a bunch of good friends south of the Red River, so I got updates on what was afoot.

        The other side of the coin is that ice storms are relatively common in Northern Texas, so a big group of Texans know to be prepared for losing power in the cold. This event just happened to be the coldest one we’ve seen.

        1. Most of the problem’s in the *lower* half of the Texas grid due to the population distribution (yes, yes, DFW, but on the whole – there’s also politics going on there as well). ERCOT wants to keep the grid up and running rather than have it fracture and do Bad Things, so big areas with little demand stay running, whereas small areas with big demand shut off.

          Also important to note that the SPP isn’t a grid: it’s an RTO on top of the Eastern Interconnect grid. Not entirely a pedantic difference – if SPP ever became worried about its capacity, they can easily beef up the interconnects with the other RTOs.

          The Texas grid standing by itself is just impressively terrible at this point. Regulators and scientists/engineers have been crowing about wanting to *heavily* beef up the interconnects between the Eastern/Western side for *years*, and they’re huge!

          ERCOT’s basically been building this giant tower out of popsicle sticks for years, and suddenly everyone’s shocked that it fell over (and I’m sorry, when you shut off people’s power for 50+ hours, you don’t get to say ‘the grid didn’t collapse!’).

  11. in San Antonio were also dealing with water ‘blue-outs’
    house pipes and neighborhood mains freezing
    pressure pumps and treatment plants are loosing power

    but like the ‘ideal’ texan i was prepared
    many gallons of drinking water and foods
    i busted out the lipos and inverters to (play xbox) power necessities
    the modem and router are backed up by battery

    Texas is independent by nature and in the spirit of the natives
    we prepare individually, then help our neighbors, then the state (in that order)

      1. UPS on the equipment and while it’s no triple-nine’s it’s better than the usual broadband/DSL setup. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised in the future if Starlink becomes a form of backup.

  12. The quiet generator linked above has some faults to it.

    Since I’m a ham operator, I’ve been prepared for quite a while.
    Thing is, I’m up here in the Pacific Northwest while my father is in Texas.
    I can have all the supplies and be the most prepared individual on the planet
    but if I can’t get to my father to help him all I have isn’t worth squat.

    As far as grids blowing out etc., look up the Carrington event and what it did
    to the telegraph lines. That was simple technology, ancient by today’s standards.
    If a Carrington event were to happen today, our so-called ‘modern world’ would be
    blown back to the proverbial ‘technological stone age’.
    As far as charging a cellphone, that’s all fine and dandy. Plug it into the car or
    do a ‘hackaday’ and charge it by hand cranking a small DC hobby motor.
    About that though…that cellphone is going to be useless when your cell tower’s backup
    battery dies. There are youtube videos of people who made portable DC generators that
    are powered by sitting on a bicycle and pedalling. Great way to lose a few (well, more
    than a few) pounds. While I enjoy the modern convenience of having electrical power
    at my disposal every second of every day whenever I desire it, I do remember stories
    Grandfather told me about when he was a child during the Great Depression.
    Young people are so dependent on technology, when that technology fails due to the
    lack of power, the younger generation will unsure of what to do or how to proceed.
    The internet is a wonderful thing. You can learn about any subject you can think of.
    While ham operators are better prepared during power outages etc. even their batteries
    won’t last forever. Think outside the box and usually you’ll come up with something that
    works. I remember my bike as a kid, it had a 6V dynamo (older term for generator) that
    would light up the front light as long as the bike was moving.
    It’s good to learn lessons from the past. They can be timeless, and are still useful today.

    1. Part of the problems is that the people in charge of high tech projects don’t like tech dependance. Many of them probably write pages a day on real paper and would rather bike than go near a self driving car.

      What’s it to them if GPS goes down? They’ve been saying all along that low tech is best.

      The “maximum productivity” and “Go fast and fail early and be agile” mindset of the current tech leadership is not the kind of thinking that inspires ultra-rugged cell towers and chip fabs protected by faraday cages. They’d rather burn brightly than be safe, because to the Antifragile mind, a carrington event blasting us back to the stone age is just a setback, with a side of new opportunities.

      Hard to prevent a problem before you’ve even acknowledged it AS a problem.

  13. As a European I must say that this photo lacks a Winchester rifle, mouth full of tabaco and there is not enough cattle around that man to fulfill my stereotype of Texas representative. Also Texas Ranger would be a bit more accurate than Dallas.


  14. @Daniel Dunn
    The answer to your question is literally all over the internet.
    The knowledge needed to maintain a generator is very, very rudimentary. Like 4th grade rudimentary.
    You can get used standby generators in the USA in the 5-7kW range for anywere from a hundred bucks used up to 500 or so new. If you want something with an extreme level of efficiency, or a true sine wave inverter, you can pay more than $1k for a new one with these features.
    Generators require only basic care and maintenance, changing the oil at the recommended interval, Cleaning or changing the air filter every so many hundred hours of usage, etc. Something that a cave man could figure out how to do.
    I have 3 generators, not because I needed 3, but because I saw them at a garage or estate sale for a hundred bucks and couldn’t pass up the deal. A lot of people in suburban areas purchase generators “just in case” and then never use them – This was the case with all of mine – Little to no use, yet all 3 generators are more than 10 years old, and one is almost 20 years old.
    The only failure I have had is a small defect in the idle-down control circuitry on one generator. Very simple fix, but I did not have any plans to mimic – I had to figure it out myself – Very basic troubleshooting skills required, like understanding ohms law and being able to follow PCB traces and sketch out a very basic circuit. I have also rebuilt the carbs on all 3, just for the heck of it, not that it was necessary, but they are decades old and I thought I might find some orings starting to fail (but didn’t).
    If you live somewhere that you depend on heat to keep your pipes from freezing, or in a rural or suburban area where PoCo repairs after major events can take days, having a generator isn’t just a gude idea, it’s a rule.

    1. The trick with generators is that you still have to feed them. If a fuel truck can’t get in to refill them, your generator is useless.

      Right now in San Antonio, we have two TV stations and at least one radio station off the air.

      1. There is this thing called planning where you keep a little fuel around. Then, you start the generator only periodically, as neede to warm up the house, pump water, etc.
        It shouldn’t be surprising to you that you could make a few cans of gas last weeks if you had to.

  15. I guess investing gazillions of subventions to wind turbines and burdening fossil fuels with high taxes is not the best way to attract investments. Texas (supposedly!) obtains 25% of its power from renewables. In theory, which also says they are quite useless in non-ideal conditions. So in the past decade the funds went into trendy toys instead of maintaining and growing the existing grid, while the needs were growing. Connecting to national grid is a temporary fix. Eventually someone will have to keep that grid up by running serious tech, otherwise you’ll just gradually create a massive fallout across the entire United States. With no one to help.

  16. I hate to spoil all the generation guru’s input, but, from here it looks like many miles of wiring have fallen down and is currently non-functional. If you can’t get it to a user, then it is useless to that user no matter it’s point or type of generation

    1. Another big problem is that a lot of water piping is ruptured, and when it un-freezes it’s going to leak. A lot. And a lot of the damage is going to be in places like shallow-buried cutoff valves and exterior meters and such where the damage is not obvious to the resident. So there are areas where it’s going to be difficult to return water service because it’s going to be hard to hold pressure until those houses are repaired, or at lease identified and disconnected.

      This kind of thing happened in the California wildfires, where enough houses collapsed and broke open their water systems that it was impossible to get water to the hydrants.

      1. There’s multiple time bombs in outside faucets too. Multiple scenarios possible. i) You kept warm but didn’t have a freeze proof outside faucet, because thermal load of house is usually enough to stop it freezing on the few freezing overnights, but cold snap sucked all the heat capacity out of your walls and it froze. Now if you don’t realise it’s leaking as it thaws (gushers are obvious, dribblers not so much) it could a) flood basement, b)flood crawlspace, c) soak the ground under one corner of the slab. Situation a probably gets noticed quickly, situation b, it might take until spring when it really warms up, and you wonder why it’s so damn humid indoors and you’re starting to grow mold on your walls. and c) possibly you get away with it, unless it’s gushing enough to wash out, though a dribbler could go unnoticed for years and next time there’s a deep freeze it frost heaves one corner of your house. Could happen in the next month or two if there’s a freeze thaw freeze. Then ii) all that but even more likely with people unable to maintain their houses temperature, or were only able to hang a hurricane lantern or something on the main cluster of indoor plumbing to stop it freezing. iii) People who had a freeze proof outside faucet but left hose or sprinklers connected to it. If they’re part of a ii) situation it might have frozen behind the valve (It’s like a valve on a long stick, so the water stays “indoors” until needed, but poor weatherproofing and indoor temp drops mean it can freeze there). Then they get a, b, or c above if it’s currently leaking, or a, b, or c in a few months time because the outer portion froze and they won’t know it until the first time they run their hoses or sprinklers, and again dribbler might defer notice and make big problems, or gusher might fill your basement while you’re at work etc.

  17. I dunno, almost all of Texas has more reliable power than California. I used to live in the high desert (Anza valley) for ten years and lost power about once every 20 to 50 days – sometimes for a few minutes, and there were times where power was off or intermittent for several days (and not necessarily due to fires and high winds, just ‘because’). Have lived in rural San Diego county for two years. During last year, have lost power (unplanned outage) SEVEN times, most times for at least 24 hours. And SDGE published stats do not provide accurate outage information. SDGE’s suggestion was for me to buy a generator. I have lived in third-world countries with more reliable power. Texas has nothing to complain about…

  18. If inverter generators can be sync’d with other inverter generators, why can’t one be sync’d with a traditional generator?
    I’m thinking all it would have to do is follow the frequency of the traditional, just like it would have to follow the frequency of another inverter.

    1. Voltage, freq, and phase angle and sequencing must be observed and controlled. Difficult to do with the typical small generator intended for residential use unless you have big $$$$$. And the utility is gonna have all manner of equipment certifications and qualifications before grid connection.

      My generator is for my house, so screw the grid; and the cost to do this is significant and not worth the liability risk to the average home owner. It cost me mucho dinero just to get islanding approved for both my solar and generator disconnects.

      While incomplete and not fully technically correct, HaD covered this subject here:

  19. This idiocy mostly exists in the cities where a majority of the population has been taught not to think for themselves… In rural areas, people are still quite capable of thinking for themselves, and understand the difference between winter, all-season, and summer tires… I live in a large farming community, and no one in my area has trouble with the roads even when there is a foot of snow across them with a nice ice bed beneath it!
    I suppose, in a way, the EU is no different than the cities in the USA – you guys had to be mandated by law to put winter tires on your vehicles during the winter months, since you couldn’t just figure it out and do it on your own :P

  20. Texas was not admitted to the union with a secession clause. That’s a myth. They were admitted with the option to divide the state up into 5 states in the future, since it was such a large area.

    1. Spot on! And they’ve already exercised the dive-up-the-state clause, the Republic’s territory having been parceled out into the New Mexico and Utah Territories, and the state of Texas by 1850.

  21. “Sadly the reality of powering a human population is never so predictable…

    Grid strategists make it their business to predict our actions as they relate to power use down to the minute.”

    Good grief! Which is it unpredictable or predictable down to the MINUTE?

  22. Borrowing a Diesel Locomotive to power a bunch of municipal buildings during the massive and very destructive ice storm of 1998… Works cause the 600V traction alternator in the loco can feed the 600V distribution voltage of the building. The link has another link in it that gives a bit more detail for the train buffs…

  23. I used to work in northern Ontario, Canada, and on one occasion the train to Moosonee, on the Hudson Bay, the train had to off-load s pile of equipment for the Fraserdale/Abitibi power generating complex.

    Things are pretty laid back there, and we were allowed to keep warm in the cozy generator hall. The operators were switching the machines back on to the grid.

    Suddenly there was an almighty bang, followed by a gut shaking roar of laughter from the operator, who said he had just missed the “in-phase” point when he should have gone on-line with the grid.

    Hate to be there when the “in-phase” point was any greater. Still the ozone smelled invigorating!

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