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The U of M’s Gabriel Chan on why Texas’ energy grid failed — and what it means for Minnesota

Though a similar grid failure in Minnesota is highly unlikely, “I wouldn’t want to say it’s impossible,” says Chan.

Workers installing a utility pole on Monday to support power lines in Houston, Texas.
Workers installing a utility pole on Monday to support power lines in Houston, Texas.
REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Last week, Texas experienced an energy grid failure on a disastrous scale. Roughly 2.7 million people were without power last Wednesday; for comparison, that would be akin to half of Minnesota’s population experiencing a blackout. This week, though power services have largely been restored across the state, millions are reeling from the aftermath of the Arctic blast. 

The unseasonably cold winter storm wasn’t simply an inconvenience. The delivery of hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines was delayed, and nearly half of Texas’ population faced a water crisis. The death count as a result of the outages — from exposure to cold to carbon monoxide poisoning — has climbed into the dozens

MinnPost chatted with Gabriel Chan, the director of graduate study for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a fellow at the University’s Institute on the Environment, about why Texas’ energy grid failed, how Minnesota gets its energy and what energy production will look like in a climate-changed world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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MinnPost: How exactly does Minnesota’s energy grid function? 

Gabe Chan: So, actually, there’s no such thing as the “Minnesota energy grid.” Minnesota is part of something called the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO. MISO spans from Manitoba, down through North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, parts of Illinois, Indiana, parts of Michigan, parts of Arkansas, parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, a little bit of Texas. That grid is interconnected and has a sort of centralized system operation for how electricity generators are dispatched to meet demand throughout that system. 

MP: So how does that compare to the energy grid of Texas? 

GC: It’s very complicated. A lot of this has to do with history about how the electric grid was built up in the United States. But where we are today is that, basically, there are three grids in the U.S. from a reliability standpoint: There’s the East Coast grid, West Coast grid and the Texas grid. And those three different grids all balance within themselves, and Texas is separate. There are some limited connections between Texas and the other grids, but they’re very limited. And that’s part of the challenge. 

As I mentioned, Minnesota is part of MISO, so Minnesota is also a part of the whole Eastern Interconnect — the whole East Coast grid. So when we were facing the polar vortex a few days ago, we were actually importing a lot of electricity from the next grid over to the east, what’s called the PJM grid, which covers Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we’re importing a lot of electricity from over there, here. That’s pretty normal for us to import a bunch of electricity across the whole Eastern Interconnect, whereas Texas is quite isolated in terms of where they can buy and sell power.

MP: Why exactly is Texas’ power grid so isolated? 

GC: By choice. A lot of Texas’ history was as the federal government became more involved in regulating electric reliability through a federal organization called FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. As FERC was getting set up and the Federal Power Act — all these regulations were getting established to ensure reliability and supply to meet demand, and Texas wanted to control things themselves. So, they set up their own system to avoid those regulations. 

MP: Texas’ power grid was vastly unprepared for last week. Why was this?

GC: What’s gone on with Texas is a weather event that was way outside of the planning margins that Texas was working under. What ended up happening was a lot of the power plants that they were counting on for meeting demand weren’t available to operate. 

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In particular, what happened in Texas was a lot of natural gas infrastructure froze, and at the same time, demand for energy was going way up as people wanted more heating at home. Texas is not a place that gets a lot of cold. So, when it got cold, people’s houses aren’t very well insulated; they’re optimized for hot Texas summers and not for cold winters. … Many [natural gas power plants] didn’t even have walls around them, because that lets the power plant breathe more and cool down faster when it’s hot. Well, when it’s winter, that lets in the cold air and things start to freeze. 

You have this simultaneous increase in demand for electricity and gas, and gas infrastructure falling apart, leading to an imbalance of supply and demand. Then, ultimately, the grid only kept working anywhere because they curtailed demand by basically running through rolling or sometimes long-duration blackouts to keep demand below supply. 

Gabe Chan
Gabriel Chan
One of the fundamental things that’s true about grids anywhere is that supply and demand have to be in perpetual, near-instantaneous balance. Just because there’s very, very, very limited energy storage, supply has to equal demand, or else the grid basically collapses. 

MP: What would need to happen for Minnesota to see a similar kind of “perfect storm?” What circumstances would be needed for Minnesota to see outages and damage the extent to that which we saw in Texas? 

GC: A lot has been done in Minnesota and in cold-climate states to prevent such things from happening. It was colder in Minnesota that day than it was in Texas, but it was more out of the ordinary in Texas than it was in Minnesota. So, there are many things that grid operators, utilities, power plant operators do as regular practice in Minnesota that are not regular practice in Texas. 

For example, many of our natural gas power plants also have equipment that sometimes freezes in the winter, but they keep on-site backups to use on those days. As another example, homes and buildings in Minnesota are much more insulated than they are in Texas. So, when it gets really cold, demand goes up, but it doesn’t spike at the same rate as it does when you don’t have good home insulation. The third part is that we are interconnected, as I mentioned, all around us. When the power plants that we have in-state aren’t sufficient to meet demand, we regularly buy and sell power from our neighbors, and that really helps build up our resiliency as well. 

So, to answer your question, what would it take for cascading blackouts of the same magnitude to happen here? I mean, I think it really would be failures of all of those pieces coming together that  redundancies are not available and maxed out, or that our demand increases at a rate at which supply can’t keep up, and our neighbors are facing the same situation and can’t help us out with power. 

MP: So, for example, would an instance in which a prolonged cold bout across all the regions that MISO includes be something that could result in such a catastrophic energy grid failure?

GC: We’ve had periods of prolonged cold … but I think we have winterized a lot of our equipment to be able to run in these conditions. So, I think that there’s a lot of regulation … that will ensure reliability. I think that it’s pretty unlikely. It’s a bit difficult to imagine what it would look like. 

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Maybe one thing to note is that our electric grid is undergoing profound changes right now and is likely to see even faster changes in the next few years, particularly as we move to decarbonize our electric supply. I think that this type of experience is showing that it’s also really important to include in the equation reliability, and reliability is really difficult to ensure. I wouldn’t characterize it as a harder problem, but it becomes a different problem when you have a lot more renewables on the system. 

If you have a lot more renewables on the system, they’re gonna run intermittently as it’s called — the wind blows when the wind blows, and the sun shines when the sun shines. We are really good at predicting this now. We can get wind forecasts very well, we can get sun forecasts — no doubt — very precisely. I think what we need to get better at is how we dynamically manage our demand to follow supply and not just have supply follow demand. 

So, I think when we think of the two-way grid — more smart two-way controls, and utilities being engaged with members so that you can do things, like everyone on the block doesn’t have to run their water heater at the exact same time; you could cycle it to lower spikes in demand because water heaters are really good at storing hot water — things like that, I think, are all things that are going to improve our resilience as we move to a more renewables grid. I would say overall, it’s pretty unlikely that something like that could happen here, but I wouldn’t want to say it’s impossible. I think a lot of really smart people are doing a lot of really good work to ensure the grid stays reliable.

MP: Would leaning into a higher renewables grid be a way to minimize vulnerabilities that Minnesota may face when it comes to energy production? 

GC: That’s the question everyone’s debating right now. I think one thing we can say with high confidence is that renewables were not to blame for Texas’ situation this week. I think we’re very confident that this was mostly a problem of natural gas. But the question you raised is still a valid question: What will reliability look like in high renewables world? 

I think in a high renewables world, the challenge of ensuring reliability is different. I think there’s a lot of room for innovation there. I think a lot of the modeling shows that it’s still important to have a diversified mix. One thing that certainly can help with a higher renewables world is if we can control demand to meet supply, and not always just have supply meet demand. So what that could look like is demand-response devices, things like smart thermostats, smart water heaters or smart air conditioning that can adjust so that they’re following market availability of energy. 

Another thing that could really help is building more electric transmission lines. What that means is interconnecting more of the country at higher capacities, basically allowing more energy to be traded across large land areas. Because when the wind doesn’t blow in Minnesota, it might be blowing in Nebraska, and if we can import from Nebraska, that’s great. Then, when it’s blowing in Minnesota, but not in Nebraska, we can send our power back. … I still think there will be some need for some amount of dispatchable resources. I think it’s also important that we keep our eye on that. 

MP: When it comes to rolling blackouts or other solutions to avoiding grid failure en masse, how are those decisions made? And to what extent are equity and the protection of vulnerable populations taken into account?

GC: I think what we’ve seen in Texas is that equity was not being taken into account. When the system operator looks at the system and sees that, at the next moment, there’s a voltage drop because there’s not enough supply to meet demand, the very first course of action is the grid operator will say, “Well, is there any more supply?” Can we go to power plants and say, “Hey, will you run now? We’ll pay you the market price,” which, in Texas, hit its upper limit last week. 

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If they say, “No, we can’t operate. We’re broken,” or “We’re already at full capacity,” then the next step is the grid operator will go and try to see, “Is there any demand that could be curtailed voluntarily?” So, they may go to a big factory and say, “Hey, could you shut down operations?” And if they say, “No, the price isn’t high enough,” or “No, we can’t, it’s essential,” or “No, we can’t, we already turned everything off,” then the very last step that’s available is actually telling the utilities to then start involuntarily shedding loads, it’s called. Then, it’s up to the utilities to decide how to do that.

There are some regulations, but it’s complicated. Oftentimes, utilities will try to prioritize other critical infrastructure like water pumping stations or hospitals and not disconnect power around those areas, but it’s a really kind of high-pressure situation. It’s no one’s first choice. I think what we saw in a few big cities in Texas this year is that many predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods saw prolonged shut-offs. I think that’s a real concern for how we manage these problems in the future.

There’s certainly a lot more data to dig through to really understand this, but I think what we’re seeing is that the protocols in place are not taking equity into account. While there are some principles that I think are important — like keeping critical infrastructure running — this is an emergency triage situation. And, I think we need to just wait to see a little bit longer about exactly how this all works. 

We found work in my group in Puerto Rico, where, similarly, they faced a really prolonged series of insufficient supply to meet demand for electricity after Hurricane Maria, and looking at the places that got reconnected last were some of the poorest parts of Puerto Rico in the inner-mountain region. [They] didn’t get power back for an entire year, sometimes longer than a year. If those were the poorest, most rural places that had the least access to other social services and resources, for sure equity was not a guiding principle in the reconnection. I can’t say for sure, but the perception of the folks that we work with was that equity was not taken into account. 

MP:  As the unexpected becomes a bit more expected with extreme changes in weather, how can Minnesota prepare itself for the impacts of climate change when it comes to energy production and distribution? 

GC: I think certainly we’re learning that our electric grid is vulnerable to climate impacts. We saw that with Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Now, with this cold snap in Texas, we’re again seeing that the grid is a vulnerable infrastructure. It’s not particularly riveting to think about investing in electric grid infrastructure — or really any infrastructure, for that matter — and a lot of our infrastructure systems are very vulnerable to climate change. 

When it comes to electricity, in particular, I think that affordable and reliable service is like the mantra of the industry. Reliability is something that a lot of folks have thought about, and we have a lot of regulations designed to ensure reliable service. I mentioned MISO. They are an important organization that sets standards for what reliability means and how much backup utilities we need to have in order to meet reliability standards. There are some incentives and market forces also at play here on top of the regulations, things like the capacity market, it’s called. I think all those structures are critical as we think about reliability. I would say the most important thing that should be done moving forward is to make sure that those regulations and market constructs designed to incentivize or ensure reliable service are also taking into account not just historic data, but also forecasts of what reliability needs to be in a climate-changed world. 

Take flood insurance, for example. The National Flood Insurance Program is based off of flood plains that don’t get updated with new climate projections, and that creates a problem. Similarly, we need to be thinking about how we update our reliability standards for not the climate of the last 10 years but the climate of the next 100 years. I think that’s really where resilient infrastructure planning should be taken when it comes to the electric grid.