In response to "Ensuring what happened in Texas won't happen here" by Sens. Jim Roers and Curt Kreun:

The weather event in the southern U.S. has amplified the discussion about electricity and grid reliability in North Dakota. Public officials will make better policy choices if they have a correct understanding of what happened. Texas didn’t lose power because it abandoned “baseload” power or because of renewables. (Senators Kreun/Roers—3/15/2021).

In late February, an unusual winter storm brought frigid cold weather to Texas and the Southeast U.S., affecting ERCOT, the Texas power grid operator and MISO and SPP, who serve North Dakota and 28 other states. These grid operators are like “air traffic controllers” of the grid; they don’t own generation, but they operate generation and transmission under their jurisdiction. Air traffic controllers expect planes to be fueled and well-maintained, but if they aren’t, the traffic controller may not successfully guide the plane to its intended destination.

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During the storm, demand in ERCOT and parts of SPP and MISO increased beyond normal. At the same time, a large part of electric generation in ERCOT and SPP failed because of weather. The system didn’t falter because of the energy mix—but because some generation plants, including coal, nuclear, wind, and natural gas, weren’t sufficiently protected against an extraordinary, frigid weather event. As a result, there was too-little generation for larger-than anticipated demand.

Without the actions taken by the grid operators, the grid would have potentially shut down completely, possibly taking weeks to recover. To avoid a complete shutdown, the grid operators instituted “rolling blackouts,” -- turning off power to small areas, rotating to other areas so, nobody was without power for more than a few hours.

The situation in Texas was severe because so much generation went offline resulting from frozen equipment and fuel supplies. Detailed root-cause investigations are underway. In SPP, the weather was less extreme, but rolling blackouts were used to make sure the grid would remain in operation. SPP customers in North Dakota experienced some rolling outages, as did others outside of Texas.

Meanwhile, MISO was able to share electricity with SPP during the same event---and none of the MISO customers in North Dakota experienced power outages. SPP (14 states) and MISO (15 states) differ significantly from ERCOT. ERCOT is smaller so it is more likely to be affected by a single event, like a severe storm. It operates exclusively in Texas and has limited transmission connections to neighbors, so it has little ability to import electricity from other regions in times of need.

Conversely, SPP and MISO (and thus ND) have connections to each other and to other regions. This gives them additional reliability during severe storms, allowing external sources to deliver electricity during times of need. In the northern parts of MISO and SPP, resources are generally winterized. This means that they will be much less likely to fail during a cold wave like the one that recently hit Texas.

The senators are correct when they say that insurance against unusual weather events is important. Utility planning processes must be adapted to consider the potential that extreme storms have to disrupt the power system, and these processes must evaluate and compare alternative, cost-effective options that provide for grid reliability.

In the meantime, the ND grid and its generation operated largely as it was intended. MISO and SPP constantly plan for such events to minimize the risk of failures. As Senators Kreun and Roers suggest, North Dakota should ensure not to make the mistakes of Texas.

Milligan is a consultant with Milligan Grid Solutions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.