Texan Blackout isn't a Texas Problem

Events in the Lonestar State have deservedly shone a light on the inadequacies of its power infrastructure but come with a warning for those looking on.  

Following a Valentine’s tragedy, the hearts of the battery energy storage world have set on the Lonestar State. A slew of articles in recent weeks  have highlighted the effect an increased share of energy storage will have in the power matrix for the benefit of the state’s power security. Texas was already aware of this but has been too slow to adapt. Power grids around the world should sit up and take note of the immediate importance of battery energy storage projects.  

Last month’s back-to-back winter storms crippled power systems across the state leaving over US$18 billion in damages and scores of fatalities - with many frozen to death in their homes. Texans normally enjoy a subtropical or desert climate and were unprepared for temperatures to plunge far below freezing as an unstable polar vortex immersed the southern state in Arctic air.  

The disaster has led one large electricity provider to seek bankruptcy and put several others near to it. The Lonestar State famously runs on the independent ERCOT grid which, by maintaining its grid coverage shy of state lines, avoids being subjected to federal rules. 

Inadequate planning from officials compounded the vulnerabilities of the isolated grid, catching them off guard as the winter storms approached on Valentine’s Day. As a result, the power authority last week axed its CEO and seven of 15 directors have resigned as did the head of the state’s Public Utility Commission, which supervises ERCOT. Texans, fans of autonomy, found out the hard way that it ain't easy being independent.  

Energy companies hadn’t installed insulation on generation machinery - you didn’t need insulation against the ice in Texas - contributing to the 27GW of coal, nuclear, gas and wind capacity that shut down during the storms while electricity demand surged to record levels as citizens turned on their electric heating. The Texan power authority was forced to shed over 30GW of load leaving over four million homes and businesses without power. Houston, ‘The Energy Capital of the World’, issued pleas for citizens to lower energy consumption as much of the city plunged into darkness. Authorities began to advise citizens on how to conserve body heat as temperatures dove down to -12oC.  

All hat no cattle 

Despite the storms being forecasted far ahead of time, State officials emerged after the chill and called the situation a “meteor strike” and “black swan” event that no one could have reasonably planned for. The reality is that Texas isn't yet prepared for a today of more temperature extremes, nor is anyone else.  

There were 22 recorded extreme temperature events in the US last year, seen at both ends of the thermometer. Soaring heat in California last August saw four million people lose power and wildfires burn four-and-a-half million acres, leaving over US$12 billion in damages. With climate change comes more extreme weather. Like in South Australia in 2016 when a serious storm damaged transmission leading to widespread power outages.  

Australia shares a remarkably comparable power matrix to Texas. Their race to renewables led a highly centralised grid to suffer from low inertia leaving the grid vulnerable to a frequency imbalance if, say, a storm downed some important power lines. Since the blackout, South Australian authorities have responded remarkably well to improve the resilience of their grid, a crucial part of this fortification are battery storage projects.  

The famous Hornsdale Power Reserve was commissioned the year after the South Australia storm which, at the time, was billed as the largest lithium-ion battery in the world. The project has seen great success in its tasks of grid balancing and reserve. Now other, larger battery storage projects are under construction in the state and across the nation.  

Texas is aware of all this. Its project pipeline is full of battery storage projects that have arisen following a renewables boom in the oil rich state. There’s a Texas saying that wind farms aren’t for power generation rather they’re just some fans installed to fight the heat. That’s a little unfair on the state's achievements in renewable energy. If Texas achieved succession - again - it would rank fifth in the world for wind power capacity, behind China, the United States, Germany and India. Other renewables are also set to dominate the power matrix as fossil fuels are phased out.  

Rumours surfaced this week of a secretive battery storage project in Texas that is readying to plug into the grid, owned by Tesla, one of many BESSs on the way. Enel announced recently is has begun construction on a 350MW wind & 137MW storage project in the state, Capture Energy secured US$93.3 million debt financing to add 230MW to its current Texan storage assets and is lining up financing for 250MW more, and Total acquired a 2.2GW pipeline of assets in Texas that include 600MW of BESS.  

This year, deployed battery storage in Texas will expand to over 1.7GW, according to ERCOT, with another 9GW of battery storage projects currently in the pipeline. It can’t arrive quick enough. If Texas had its current battery storage project pipeline already installed, the effects of February’s storm would have been greatly mitigated.  

The Battery Capital of the World 

Prosumer systems are becoming more popular, even more so following the storms.  Houston-based Sunnova and competitor SunPower sell home solar panels and battery storage to Texans.  

These systems not only keep a household’s lights on in the event of grid failure but they will also play a valuable role in maintaining grid operability at large as the power matrix changes. 

Grids need to decentralise, interconnect and become smarter in a world of extreme temperatures. As wind and solar energy come to dominate generation, balancing and inertia mechanisms are needed to protect power security. As prosumers increase in number, better infrastructure is needed to distribute and manage power to fortify the system. BESSs are both a short- and long-term solution.  

BESSs such as Multi Source Power’s Flex-ESS1000 are ideal for managing curtailment to compliment wind and solar farms. Whether in colocation with renewable projects or as a grid utility, installing several megawatts of Flex-ESS1000 in utility-scale battery storage helps to meet residual demand peaks, gives incremental energy output, shifts energy across time and locations, and provides real-time grid balancing to ensure power security.  

BESSs are also key in the response to grid emergencies, offering services such as black starts and balancing. When, for example, winter storms wipe out generation capacity, batteries can be used in place of expensive peaking plants, providing fast-response, short-run capacity at times of high demand before other generation or longer-term energy storage can go online.  

Batteries too allow traders to arbitrage between periods of high and low power prices and they enable greater distributed energy. Every new rooftop solar system will take the pressure off a stressed out grid and help maintain the grid during stress, especially with the addition of battery storage, such as Multi Source Power’s Flex-ESS500 or Flex-ESS250, to allow frequency response for the grid and as a store of private power in the case of extreme events. BESSs also help to speed up and streamline the necessary infrastructure upgrades that are needed with grid investment deferral. The world is beginning to realise the importance of batteries in its power grids and now that need is very pertinent in Texas.  

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FLEX-ESS is MSP’s latest storage solution, combining the strongest properties that we have achieved to date. Designed for agility, FLEX-ESS is rapidly deployed and connected to multiple power inputs through its DC port in a wide variety of schemes, off or on grid.