Texas customers face blackouts – are there lessons for the UK?

Energy customers in Texas are facing rolling blackouts, with around 4 million currently off power. Users have been asked to cut peak demand and unprecedented actions have been seen from competitive suppliers, who have offered customers payments of up to $100 if they switch immediately to another supplier – a desperate move to try to reduce the companies’ exposure to expected price spikes.

Supplies have shrunk and prices spiked to thousands of dollars at peak because (among other reasons) temperatures in Texas have hit record new winter lows and stayed there for several days, down to 10 degrees below zero (but not as low, it shoud be noted, as some Scottish readings in the UK’s recent cold snap). That has put power generation out of action.  Some wind turbines have iced over, but relatively few have been affected. What has happened is that a large number of gas-fired power plants are not available, either for plant reasons – or because across large areas, extraction and transport of gas has stopped because gas has frozen in the pipes. The gas that is available is being tapped by domestic customers for heating. (Coal, incidentally, cannot necessarily be relied on as backup in this situation, as  it too may freeze and be unusable.)

That’s a big issue. But the problem would be more manageable if Texas had not been so determined to go it alone in its power sector and refuse bulk interconnections between its networks and those of neighbouring systems – where power is not scarce at the moment. That’s a political problem. High voltage networks are the business Federal agencies, who would have a degree of jurisdiction over their routes and use. The ‘Lone Star State’ dod not want to cede that, even in exchange for the  potential lower power prices and power export opportunities – nor for the extra security. It remains to be seen whether the idea will get a warmer recepton from Texans after the cold spell is over.

Are there lessons for the UK? The Texas experience has come as UK gas operator NGGT has opened an investigation into readiness for a gas emergency.

One common theme is that electricity and gas operators are not operating together. Another is that it s not only renewables that are weather-dependent. A third is that you should retain good links with your neighbours. And finally, some other US networks (and GB) use a Capacity Market to ensure that plant will be there in the event of an emergency.  (The GB market is currently looking at a gap as promised plant elects to drop out of the market). It’s not clear whether that would have stood the test of frozen gas in any case, and some customers in those areas would point out that although they are less likely to suffer price spikes, it’s not clear that the standing charge of a capacity market works out any cheaper in the long run.

All food for thought for the UK.

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Further reading

NGGT probes gas emergency arrangements’ link with power generation, fearing ‘no robust methodology’. Are gas engine fleets ‘free riding’?

Those intermittent power plants …

Resilience: exploring the Brexit penalty

Do we have enough Electricity Margin Notices?

Brexit TCA dashes hopes of £15M annual saving on electricity balancing costs – NGESO seeks feedback on the way forward