(Rapid) Change Behind Recent Energy System Failure Events
Date: March 23rd 2021
Author: Valerija Hozjan
While the direct causes were completely different in each of the recent energy system failure events around the globe, the common theme was change, said Janusz Bialek from the UK’s Newcastle University last week.
According to Bialek, in the case of the blackout in Great Britain in 2019, when two power plants – the Hornsea offshore wind park and the Little Barford CCGT power plant – tripped because of a lightning strike, the UK grid operator was caught off-guard by a rapid change in technology.
Meanwhile, in the case of the European power grid split on 8 January 2021, system operators were caught off-guard by power flow patterns, while in the so-called Texas ‘freeze-event’ they were caught off-guard by (new) weather patterns due to climate change, noted Bialek.
“The direct causes were completely different in each case. However, there is a common theme in all three of them, which is change,” stressed Bialek during an International Association for Energy Economics (IAEE) webinar titled ‘Texas and Other Power Markets After the Big Freeze: Diagnosis and Prognosis’.
In the old world (20th century), system operators were “omnipresent and omnipotent gods” and were dealing with “known unknowns.” Slow changes in technology gave them time to gain operational experience. Thus, the past provided good guidance for the future, said Bialek.
“In the brave new world that we have been facing for the last 10-15 years, fast changes in technology and climate change-induced changes in weather patterns have been exposing system operators to ‘unknown unknowns’,” explained Bialek.
Texas event not a surprise
Yet, the Texas event “was not a surprise,” stressed Alison Silverstein, a consultant, strategist, researcher and writer on electric transmission and reliability, energy efficiency and technology adoption issues.
“It didn’t take advanced analytics to see this event coming or to be able to predict its impact – similar cold-weather events have occurred once a decade within Texas and across the nation. You only needed the will and imagination to think it through beyond the silos of electric vs. gas vs. water vs. housing vs. roads,” said Silverstein.
Millions of people were left without power and heating in Texas during this extreme cold event and power prices spiked at a cap of 9,000 USD/MWh. Some estimates of the total cost of the event top USD 80 billion, mentioned the speakers during the webinar.
The event was not just an electricity, but also a gas and water issue, emphasised Silverstein. A combination of different failures – in electricity production, electricity transmission, as well as in gas supply – were to blame for the recent energy crisis in Texas (MORE).
“One major issue is that it was understood that Texan towns and cities only prepare for one winter storm per year and that the Texan system deals rather with summer air-conditioning loads than winter load demand,” explained Silverstein.
“Complicated systems fail in complicated ways. We design all those systems in silos with insufficient attention to all the things that could go wrong, and also in terms of how the things that go wrong in one silo can effect and go wrong in the next silos,” said Silverstein.
“The major lessons to be learnt here are that, first, diversity is essential and that all kinds of resources are required for reliability — provided those resources perform, rather than freeze up, and second, we cannot count on any and all sources of supply to perform perfectly. Therefore, we have to protect customers better through measures such as energy efficient homes, distributed backup power systems, and smarter regulation of obvious causes of supply-side failures,” concluded Silverstein.
Need for system thinking
Meanwhile, Bialek stressed that the changes that we are already seeing will accelerate more rapidly due to zero-emission targets and climate change-induced changes in weather patterns.
How can they be counteracted? “Different measures are needed in each case. All security standards should be reviewed. Statistical tools could help. However, one of the fundamental problems we are facing is that statistics are based on the past, but the future will be different,” said Bialek.
“We need to get out of our silos to look at interconnections and how they affect others,” added Bialek.
The security standards should reflect the correlation of the events, said Lynne Kiesling, an economist focusing on regulation, market design, and the economics of digitalisation and smart grid technologies in the electricity industry.
“The issue in Texas was not a capacity issue, since there was a lot of capacity, it was more of an interdependency focus challenge issue. There is an important political-economic question in terms of the extent to which the power and fuel markets need more coordination. More system thinking is required to take into account the interdependencies,” concluded Kiesling.
This article is available also in Slovene.