Vehicle-to-grid Part I: Will our electric car batteries save us from the energy apocalypse?

If you subscribe to 33 climate tech newsletters like me or perhaps just have a pulse, you may have heard that most of Texas lost power in a horrific and entirely avoidable disaster two weeks ago

Today we unpack what happened in Texas and some solutions for the future.

Is climate change to blame for the Texas blackout… YES

When the term “global warming” was coined it made it easy for climate change deniers to point to events like the recent cold snap in Texas as evidence that the world is not warming. Unfortunately, due to our evolution, we humans are hardwired to notice short term drastic changes in our environment and largely incapable of noticing small incremental changes over time. Is a citizen of Dallas more likely to notice that over the last ten years the average daily high temperature in February has risen to 63°F instead of 61°F, or that the frequency of freak weather events (like the polar vortex) is increasing? Indeed it is most certainly the latter, however for those who have come to believe that “global warming” is the only consequence or proof point of climate change this can be confusing. 

How does climate change cause the Polar Vortex to occur? 

As you likely know, way up in the North Pole, also known as the Arctic, it is very cold. You also likely know that the event that causes frigid temperatures to reach as far south as Texas is known as the “polar vortex”. Have you ever wondered what keeps the frigid Arctic air from descending further south in winter. The answer is the jet stream. A large river of wind which propels weather systems across the world; the jet stream is driven by the heat differential between the temperature at the equator and the temperature at the poles. As the Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the world for the last 30 years, the jet stream, also referred to by Texas meteorologists as a rickety barbed wire fence, has weakened. The weaker jet stream allows for the cold arctic air to escape southward more frequently and that my friends is what causes a snow apocalypse in Texas.     

What is “the grid”?

In large parts of the world, our modern lives filled with hot showers, cold refrigerators, instant cook microwave meals and Netflix entertainment at the touch of a button are all thanks to this modern day miracle called “the grid”. Often referred to as the “world’s largest machine”, the US electrical grid was named the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century by the National Academy of Engineering. The grid consists of:

  1. Generation (large coal plants, wind farms or solar arrays that generate electricity),

  2. Transmission (200,000 miles of massive power lines that carry that electricity to transformer stations), 

  3. Distribution (5.5 million miles of local power lines and transformer stations that convert the electricity to an acceptable level to be used in a home or at a business). 

Think about everything you do during your day - none of it would be possible without “the grid”.

Why must the grid remain in equilibrium? 

The US electrical grid operates on an alternating current at a frequency of 60 Hertz (60 cycles per second). Every part of the grid, from the electrical outlet you use to charge your phone to the massive power lines you drive by on the highway are set to operate at that frequency. That frequency must remain stable within a variance of 0.05 Hertz or the excess heat generated from the electricity will cause the power lines and transformer stations to catch fire. The easiest analogy to apply here is that of spinning plates: spin a plate too fast and it might heat-up, achieve lift and then crash to the floor, spin it too slow and it will wobble and crash. Much like the spinning plates, the stability and health of the grid requires a delicate balance of supply and demand for energy to keep the plates spinning.  

How is grid equilibrium maintained today? 

In order to maintain equilibrium and avoid the grid literally catching fire, the total supply of energy must always be equal to the total demand of energy on the grid. There are teams of people, known as “grid operators” who sit in control rooms all day long and monitor the supply and demand of energy to make sure it stays in equilibrium. In Texas the grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, (“ERCOT”).  During the most recent crisis in Texas, if the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure could have taken months to repair

What happened to the grid in Texas? 

You can never escape the basic laws of supply and demand… On February 14th, as snow fell in Dallas and temperatures plunged below freezing to the lowest levels seen in Texas since 1989 (well below 10°F in many places), consumers naturally turned up their heaters causing demand for energy to skyrocket. Meanwhile, natural gas plants, coal plants, and yes even some wind turbines, stopped working due to equipment freezing in the extreme cold. Suddenly there was far more demand for energy than supply of energy. 

How to fix an energy supply-demand imbalance:

  • Generate more energy: This sounds rather obvious, and is actually one of the drawbacks of renewables. When you need more energy you can’t just ask the sun to shine more brightly or the wind to blow harder, so you are forced to turn to more “dispatchable” forms of energy generation. There are coal and gas energy generation plants called “peaking power plants” which sit around waiting for “peak” energy demand and turn on when it arrives. Unfortunately, this was not an option in Texas on February 14th because many of the plants had frozen and stopped working.

  • Demand less energy: The most commonly used method for decreasing energy demand is called “demand-response”. This is where the utilities will pay industrial customers to turn off their plants or pay consumers to not run their washing machines at certain times of day. Unfortunately when it is 10 degrees outside no one is volunteering to turn off their heater. 

  • Rolling blackouts: With these options exhausted the grid operators at ERCOT had no choice but to call the utility companies and order them to cut power to their customers. While cutting power to over 15 million people for four days amidst life threatening cold is a horrible thing in and of itself, it is preferable to losing power for months. 

Why the Texas blackout was entirely avoidable

In short, Texas’s refusal to plan for a rainy (or should I say a “cold”) day and its determination to go it alone came back to haunt it. 

  1. Texas is an island, cut off from the rest of the US grid by its own choice

    1. In the US there are three large energy grids as shown below; the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and ERCOT (eg Texas)

    2. In 1935 Congress passed the Federal Power Act which gave the federal government the authority to regulate the transfer of electricity between states. In response the utility companies in Texas reached an agreement to never send any power out of the state so as to avoid being subject to Federal regulation. That tradition has carried forward to today with the Texas grid operated by a state level entity (ERCOT) and choosing to remain separate from the rest of the grid in order to avoid the regulation of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”).

    3. Maintaining its own grid has certain advantages; chief amongst which is the ability to innovate quickly without being subject to long regulatory review; this independence many have argued led to cheap power prices and helped accelerate the growth of the wind energy in Texas.

    4. The disadvantage of being an energy island is you cannot reach out to other sources of energy for help when you are in a pinch. Look no further than El Paso, Texas which sits outside of ERCOT and is connected to the Western Interconnection. While the rest of Texas was literally freezing to death, El Paso escaped the rolling blackouts thanks to power from neighboring New Mexico and Arizona.

  1. Lack of weatherization (infrastructure not built for the cold)

    1. If you stop and think about it for a second you realize that there are lots of places in the world (Siberia, Sweden, Canada, Greenland) or even in the US (think all of New England and much of the Midwest and Northwest) where winter temperatures regularly average well below freezing. So how come we don’t regularly hear about energy crises and rolling blackouts there? The answer is weatherization. Geographies that expect temperatures to reach below freezing invest in infrastructure which can still work in cold temperatures.  

    2. What does “weatherization” or “winterization” actually entail:

      1. Wind turbines: add special coatings and/or heating elements to turbine blades; additional cost ~10% of total cost of turbine

      2. Natural gas production: add insulation to pipes and surround wellheads with structures to keep heat in and avoid freezing

  1. Energy only market

    1. Texas is an “energy only market”; what this means is that unlike in the rest of the US, energy producers are not paid for future supply. Or put differently, unlike in the rest of the US where FERC requires that energy producers build in excess energy supply for emergencies, Texas has no emergency energy supply. The benefit of this approach is that consumers pay less because they are not required to fund the building of excess supply, the downside is what we just witnessed in Texas.

So what can be done moving forward?

There are two obvious answers but unfortunately neither are ones which you as a consumer can do very much about; there is one third option where the power to act rests in your hands. 

Obvious solution #1: Connect ERCOT to the rest of the grid

As previously discussed, if ERCOT were to be connected to the rest of the US it would ensure much higher resiliency and the ability for other energy producers to supply energy to Texas when it is in need. In addition it would offer energy producers in Texas the option to earn additional money by selling to power consumers in other states. In general this would be a much more free market approach than what exists today. 

Why obvious solution #1 is unlikely to happen

Connecting ERCOT to the rest of the national grid will require significant investment in large transmission wires that cross state lines. I am skeptical that this will actually happen for two reasons: 

  1. The famously independent descendants of the Alamo are unlikely to trade their independence for FERCs notoriously byzantine regulations. 

    History has shown that building large transmission lines across multiple states is nearly impossible. Just ask Michael Skelly whose Clean Line Energy Partners spend hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to connect the wind rich Oklahoma panhandle to Memphis. Chronicled in Russel Gold’s incredible book, Superpower, this awe inspiring project was ultimately blocked by the senators of Arkansas, whose constituents feared they would lose their land to eminent domain.  

    1. Sidenote: loss of land to eminent domain is a very legitimate concern, who would want land that has been in their family for generations to be taken away or crossed by massive high voltage wires. Although a skeptic might suggest that the real blockers were not small farms but the large corporate farms which received over $3B in federal subsidies over the last 6 years. (60% of subsidies go to the top 10 percent of farms; stay tuned for my piece on regenerative agriculture in 2 weeks!) 

Obvious solution #2: Winterize the grid

As we discussed earlier, in Texas everything from wind turbines, to oil and gas pipelines and wellheads were not built with the ability to work in sub-freezing temperatures. The technology to do so exists but is much more expensive to implement as a retrofit than if done upon construction. For some types of energy like wind, doing these retrofits is relatively cheap, however it is significantly more expensive for non-renewables like oil and gas which is where the majority of power generation that went offline in Texas lies. 

Why I am skeptical that obvious solution #2 will happen

As mentioned this will be incredibly expensive to implement and Texas tax payers are notoriously frugal. If you are a Texas resident, other than calling your local representative and becoming more engaged civically there is little you can do to ensure that the grid is winterized. In an encouraging development however, which I hope will prove me wrong, just last week Governor Greg Abbot of Texas called for lawmakers to pass laws that would both provide funding to and require power companies to winterize their equipment.

The solution I am most bullish on (hint: I’ve written about it before)

All hail distributed solar and battery technology. Subzero temperatures are often accompanied by high pressure weather systems which typically result in blue skies. Solar panels, in fact work better in cold temperatures because solar photovoltaic technology converts sunlight to energy more efficiently in colder temperatures. 

Ok Christian but what do I do at night when the sun doesn’t shine?

Well, one option is to install rooftop solar and a battery pack, buy an electric vehicle and during energy emergencies, draw energy from your home battery pack and electric vehicle battery. Hold on a minute: I can use my car’s battery to power my house?? Ok that is an aggressive concept but this post has gone on too long already so we will unpack it next week in “Vehicle-to-grid Part II: How vehicle-to-grid technology could help save us from blackouts”.