Washington Policy Center: Risk of Texas-style Blackouts in Washington Is Real and Growing

The Washington Policy Center reports that the risk of Texas-style blackouts in Washington is real and growing based on soon-to-close coal-fired electrical generators and projected increases in demand, among other reasons.

Key Findings

1. The recent blackouts in Texas have increased awareness of the need for reliable sources of electricity.

2. The risk of a power shortage in Washington is already slightly above the acceptable standard of 5 percent for Loss of Load Probability (LOLP).

3. That risk increases dramatically in the upcoming years, reaching 26 percent in 2026.

4. A new assessment being completed by the NW Power and Conservation Council could find the risk is even higher than that.

5. Removing the four Lower Snake River dams would cause that already high risk to increase even more.

6. Reducing the LOLP to an acceptable level in our state will be challenging given the limits on building new dispatchable energy sources like hydro and natural gas.


The recent electrical blackouts in Texas have sparked a great deal
of discussion about how society can provide a predictable supply of
electricity while reducing the environmental impact of producing energy.
The costs of getting policies wrong, as has been demonstrated in Texas
and California, can lead to expensive and deadly outcomes.

Although Washington State has a very different energy mix and utility
system, the experience in Texas is a good reminder of how state leaders
should assess the resiliency of our electricity generation and the grid’s
ability to withstand a serious winter storm.

What is the outlook for the stability of Washington’s electrical supply?
Currently, the risk of blackouts is slightly higher than is acceptable and
the danger will get much worse in the near future. The high risk is a
warning that the state’s energy policy should not ignore reliability.

Power outages in Texas

Several factors contributed to the outages in Texas.

The basic cause of the outages was a storm that caused winter demand
to hit an all-time high during the night of February 14, 2021. Soon after
midnight on February 15th the electrical system could not meet demand
and rolling blackouts were initiated by the grid manager, a Texas state
agency known as ERCOT, causing the big drop in natural gas generation
and a smaller drop in coal generation. Home heating has priority over
electrical generation for supplies of natural gas, so a loss of fuel could
have contributed to the reduction in natural gas generation. With high
demand and struggling supply, the frequency of the alternating current
dropped below 60 Hertz to a level that required some facilities be shut
down to prevent equipment damage.

Additionally, once the winter weather moved in, the amount of wind energy
available declined significantly. In the week before the storm, variable wind
generation ranged from 3,000 megawatt hours (MWh) to 21,000 MWh. When the
storm moved in, that range narrowed to a maximum of 9,000 MWh to below 1,000
MWh. Some have noted that ERCOT only planned for about 6,000 MWh of wind,
so the reduction was not unexpected. That is true, but that left nuclear, coal, and
(mostly) natural gas – i.e. dispatchable electricity (because it can be dispatched
when needed) – to meet the extremely high demand for power.

Rising risk of blackouts in Washington State

Could a similar situation, with dispatchable energy unable to keep up
with demand, happen in Washington State? The chances of that scenario are,
unfortunately, increasing.

To estimate the chance that outages or electricity shortfalls could occur, the
Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) calculates the annual Loss
Of Load Probability (LOLP), which is the “the likelihood (probability) that system
demand will exceed the generating capacity during a given period.”

It is important to keep in mind that a loss of load could simply mean that grid
managers ask major industrial users of electricity to shut down or reduce demand.
It does not necessarily mean what we saw in Texas. Additionally, reducing the risk
that electricity supply falls short can mean adding generating resources that may
be idle much of the time. Generation that is only used when demand is very high
means the cost of the electricity will be very high. So, while we could, theoretically,
push the LOLP to near zero, doing so would be very expensive…(continues)

Click here for PDF of report.

Oregon Live: Ice Storm Power Surge Fries Appliances

Oregon Live reports Northeast Portland residents fear they’ll be stuck with bills after ice storm power surge fries appliances. Power surges are something that people are told to expect, especially during lightning storms, but we don’t often think about damage to the electrical distribution system as a cause of surges. Additionally, we’re told to protect “sensitive electronics” like computers by using surge suppressing power strips, but not often told to protect other appliances. Some utilities offer whole house surge protection. For a small monthly fee, they’ll install a surge suppression device at the meter. I’m aware of at least one utility in the Yakima Valley who offers this service: Benton REA whole home surge protection link

From Oregon Live:

Eric Skye was jolted awake at 5:45 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 15, by the sound of an exploding electric transformer reverberating through his Northeast Portland home.

The block went dark immediately. Inside Skye’s home, smoke trailed from a blackened electrical outlet. Next door, the lightbulb above his neighbor’s kitchen sink burst. The cover of one nearby homeowner’s utility meter blew off and sailed into his neighbor’s yard, leaving the charred remnants of the meter exposed.

Another transformer exploded moments later, lighting up the sky on Northeast 42nd Avenue. Another explosion followed, then another, and another.

Pacific Power began restoring power two days later, but it was a rude awakening for many neighbors. Damaged or destroyed were furnaces, washers, dryers, ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, sound systems, coffee makers, computers and electrical outlets. Approximately 80 residents in the neighborhood were impacted, according to the utility company.

For many, the losses could run in the thousands of dollars. And it’s not yet clear that insurance companies or Pacific Power will offer any help.

Meanwhile, appliance orders were already backlogged because sales spiked during the pandemic. That means many residents will be without refrigerators and washers for weeks.

Skye’s insurance company already denied his claim, saying damage from a power surge was excluded if the cause occurred outside the property. He plans to file a claim with Pacific Power, but isn’t optimistic. He’s already doled out several thousand dollars for a new washer, dryer, printer and audio system and thinks he will be out more than $3,500 in total if his dishwasher can’t be repaired.

“I’m seeing appliance trucks on my street every day,” Skye said. “We immediately bought a new washer and dryer. In a family of five, that becomes an emergency pretty quickly.”

Drew Hanson, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp, Pacific Power’s corporate parent, said that more than 18 transformers were damaged or destroyed and about 50,000 feet of wire came down in Northeast Portland during the ice storm that hit the city this month.
The Grant Park area experienced some of the worst damage, Hanson said. At the peak of the storm, about 80,000 Pacific Power customers were without electricity, about half of them in Northeast Portland. The last 300 customers to have power restored in Northeast Portland were in the Grant Park area.
Hanson said the power surge occurred on Feb. 15 when residents in the Grant Park area reported losing electricity, but he wouldn’t comment on what exactly caused the power surge except that it was storm-related and that power surges can happen when one energized power line falls on another.
He also declined to answer multiple questions about Pacific Power’s liability and whether the utility company would pay out money to customers who sustained damage to appliances during the surge. He said claims will be handled on a case-by-case basis and encouraged customers with questions to call directly.
“Most homeowner’s insurance policies should address the homeowner claims and will guide the homeowner through the process of submitting a claim,” Hanson said. “If the customer wants to make a claim against Pacific Power, they can contact the call center and request a claim form to be sent to them.”
Residents who spoke with The Oregonian/OregonLive said they either hadn’t heard back from Pacific Power about their claims or had yet to file claims because they were still assessing the damage.
Many reported that their homeowners insurance will cover damage, but some said their deductibles were high enough that it wasn’t worthwhile to file a claim. After the surge, Tom Martin realized that his deductible is $2,500, around the same amount it will likely cost him to replace a destroyed oven, refrigerator and dishwasher.
He said he plans to file a claim with Pacific Power, but isn’t hopeful he will receive help because of a “force majeure” clause in the utility company’s contracts which frees the company of liability for events out of their control.
Martin is purchasing new appliances with the expectation that he won’t be reimbursed. It will take weeks for the new appliances to be delivered and his family is currently using an old fishing cooler to keep their food cold. He said the experience has been trying, but he feels blessed that things weren’t worse.
“I’m frustrated, just like everybody else,” Martin said. “We’ll have to dip into the savings account to replace things.”
Bryan Snodgrass is one of the few people in the neighborhood who hasn’t had to replace appliances this week. That’s because he had a whole-house surge protector.
While that saved his appliances, it didn’t save his utility meter, which exploded during the power surge, destroying both the meter and its base. He had to pay to replace the base before Pacific Power came out to replace the meter and restore power, after he had gone six days without electricity…(continues)



Rural Revolution: A Year of Testing

Patrice Lewis of Rural Revolution talks about lessons learned and general preparedness over the course of the past year in A Year of Testing

…If the last year has done nothing else, it has tested a whole lot of people. That testing is still going on today, everything from the hundreds of thousands of small business either closed or struggling, to the current catastrophic situation in Texas (and to a lesser extent, Oregon).

As a result of the myriad issues America has faced in the last year, being prepared is more important than ever. I think we can all agree on that. What’s questionable is whether it’s possible, since so many people are struggling financially. (For those in compromised financial straits, Daisy Luther at The Organic Prepper and its sister site The Frugalite writes a lot about this issue. Her material is well worth reviewing.)

So when I saw an article this morning on Natural News entitled “Fifteen HARD lessons I learned from the ‘Texageddon’ blackouts and collapse of critical infrastructure,” I read it with interest.

I often get impatient with Natural News because it tends toward the “We’re all gonna die!” mindset, but this one was fairly good. The bulk of the advice is in the form of a podcast I didn’t bother listening to, but here are the 15 points synopsized down. My comments are italicized and (in parentheses).

  • Survival is very physical. Expect to exert a lot of physical effort. (Agreed. We had a massive windstorm and subsequent power outage back in 2015, and it was very hard work indeed to maintain livestock, water, etc.)

    • Culture matters. Don’t end up in a community without morals or ethics when it all hits the fan. (Easy to say, not necessarily easy to do. Not everyone can afford to move.)

    • Convergence of two “black swan” disasters can wipe out your best plans, even if you have successfully prepped for any one (standalone) disaster. (Agreed. I’ve always maintained preparedness doesn’t make you immune to disaster; it just gives you a fighting chance.)

    • Some of your preps will FAIL. It’s difficult to consider all possible scenarios, so count on failures striking without warning. (Agreed.Three is two, two is one, etc.)

    • You need LAYERS of preparedness and “fall back” systems that are very low-tech and require nothing more than the laws of physics (gravity, chemistry, etc.). (That’s why I’ve always preferred low-tech options for preparedness.)

    • No one is coming to help you. In many situations, no one can get to you even if they wanted to.

    • Containers (buckets, barrels) are extremely important. Have lots of pre-stored water and fuel at all times.

    • Bitcoin and crypto were all completely valueless and useless during the collapse, since they all rely on electricity. Gold, silver and cash worked fine, on the other hand. (Yay, at last someone gets it! I’ve always thought tangible assets were the way to go. Personally I prefer the “stock” market such as cattle and chickens.)

    • You will likely experience injuries or mishaps due to new, unusual demands on your work activities. Practice safety and be prepared to deal with injuries yourself.

    • Having lots of spare parts for plumbing. Standardize your pipe sizes and accessories. I have standardized on 1″ PEX pipe and all its fittings because PEX is very easy to cut, shape and rework. Plus it’s far more resistant to bursting, compared to PVC. (I take exception to this. We should all have “lots of spare parts” for plumbing? Really? Why not just have an extra house you can keep in your back pocket for any spare parts you need? What happened in Texas was unprecedented, and the whole plumbing issue is vastly more complicated than just what’s under your sink. In other words, while spare plumbing parts are great, this is a “hindsight is 2020” recommendation that seems a little too pat and smacks of blaming the victim.)

    • Investment in food is always a good investment, as prices will continue to climb. No one ever said during an emergency, “Gee, I wish I had less food here.”

    • You can’t count on any government or institution or infrastructure to solve anything. Usually they just get in the way.

    • You MUST have good lights and many backup batteries, or you will be sitting in the dark. You’ll need a good headlamp (I use the PETZL Nao+) and some good 18650-battery flashlights such as Nitecore. (I’m also a big proponent of kerosene lamps.)

    • Guns and bullets are not needed in some survival scenarios, so balance your prepping. Don’t put all your money into ammo and fail to cover other important areas like emergency first aid. (Totally agree! There are too many “Rambo” preppers out there who think that because they have a bristling arsenal, that’s all they need to be prepared. What are they going to do – shoot their way into a closed convenience store to steal what they need whenever the power goes out?)

    • Think about what are stores of energy: Wood, diesel, gasoline, propane, water elevation, etc. Survival is a lot about energy management. (Agreed. To a minor extent, we’re facing that now in our new home. We’re still without the backups we need to stay comfortable during a grid-down situation.)

Anyway, that’s about all the rambling musings I have at the moment. Sorry to sound so incoherent…

Survivopedia: Sudden Freezes and the Cascading Problems they Cause

Richardson, Texas, city worker Kaleb Love breaks ice on a frozen fountain on Feb. 16. (LM Otero / Associated Press)

Bill White at Survivopedia talks about Sudden Freezes: The Cascading Problems they Cause while discussing the recent Texas storm/freeze.

The arctic blast that blanketed the United States has hit Texas particularly hard. Being a warm state, Texas doesn’t see much cold weather.

Yet this particular cold front has broken all records, with below-freezing weather for five days in a row. That sudden cold spell has caused cascading problems, starting with power outages. Being a citizen of Texas, I had a front-row seat.

Power outages during extreme weather events are not uncommon. Our aging electrical grid is hit the hardest by any severe weather, from ice to wind. Power companies nationwide are well-versed in emergency repairs, trying to get the power back on for people. Even so, the incidence of major power outages has been on the increase for over a decade, with weather events being the leading cause of those outages.

In this particular freeze, roughly 5.4 million people lost power, with some 4.3 million of those people being in Texas, mostly in the major population centers. But why was the Lone Star state hit so hard? People are hard at work, finger-pointing, but there’s nothing to point fingers at in reality.

When systems are designed, and plans are made, risk factors are taken into account. Those risk factors drive a wide range of design decisions, such as what temperatures equipment has to be designed to work in. That is a necessary cost containment method. Building any particular capacity for resilience into a system or structure adds cost, whether it can withstand wind, earthquake, or cold. So, extremes that are unlikely to happen are ignored, making it so that the farther any particular event falls outside the design envelope, the greater the possibility that it will cause problems.

In this case, the weather that the polar vortex brought to Texas was a once-in-a-century event. The electrical infrastructure wasn’t designed for it, leading to a large number of cascading failures. Interestingly, the failures did cascade, showing us what might happen in an even bigger grid-related disaster. Let’s follow this through.

Rough Order of Events 

To start with, Texas is leading the nation in wind power, with roughly 20% of all Texas electricity coming from wind. The decision was made to decommission some older, less environmentally friendly power plants to meet federal regulations.

At the same time this trend towards wind power was going on, the board of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) decided to reduce the amount of energy reserve capacity in the state, as part of the effort to increase the percentage of renewable energy. The reasoning was that the state could always buy energy from the surrounding states, should there be a need for extra.

In addition to moving more towards wind energy, the other significant change in the Texas grid was a vast increase of natural gas power plants. Now, roughly 48% of the state’s power comes from those plants, which are preferred because they are extremely clean burning.

Before the cold front hit, many power generating plants were pulled offline for maintenance. This is a regular occurrence, but the timing was unfortunate this time, as the lowering temperatures caused people to use more energy to heat their homes. The margin between capacity and consumption became razor-thin.

Then the cold hit, bringing freezing rain. One of the first casualties of the cold was wind turbines. The freezing rain built up on the wind turbines’ blades in West Texas, throwing those units out of balance. To avoid the destruction of the turbines, they switched off automatically. This happened to roughly half the total wind turbines, reducing the state’s total power production by 10%.

Wind turbines in colder climates are manufactured with built-in de-icing capability, much like airliners are. But this measure is not included in those installed in Texas because of the low likelihood of freezing on the turbines’ blades.

While this was going on, natural gas consumption increased as people tried to keep their homes warm. HVAC systems in Texas have a smaller heating capacity than those installed in homes farther north, as heating of any sort is rarely needed. So the furnaces in most homes were running 24/7 for at least the first four days. It was four days before mine turned off for the first time, which was only for about an hour.

This massive increase in natural gas use was coupled with freezing in the lines (yes, natural gas lines can freeze, both from water in the lines and from hydrates). This didn’t entirely block the lines, but it did restrict flow. That led to some natural gas power plants having a reduced output and others shutting down. This may have been exacerbated by instrumentation in power plants freezing up. Again, the instrumentation is not protected against extreme cold due to the rarity of that cold.

Early on in the crisis, ERCOT reacted to the entire Texas power grid’s potential loss in the usually accepted way of instituting rolling blackouts. This did not help some state areas where blackouts were already occurring, but it did prevent the entire grid from going down. If they had waited a few minutes more to initiate those rolling blackouts, the damage would have taken months to repair.

Somehow, the location of gas pumping stations and power plants was overlooked in instituting the rolling blackouts. So in some cases, the natural gas flow stopped due to the lack of electrical power. That, in turn, caused more natural gas power plants to shut down, increasing the problem. Those power plants take time to bring back online once they’ve shut down.

So, why didn’t ERCOT buy electricity from the surrounding states, as the plan called for? I haven’t seen anything definitive yet, but I would guess that since freezing cold was affecting the entire country, nobody had the excess capacity to buy from. Electric utilities were probably all producing at max, just trying to keep up with the increased need.

Up to this point, the cascading had only been in the electrical grid; but it didn’t stay there.

The next victim of all this was municipal water throughout the state. As with the power plants, water purification plants were not built to withstand several days of sub-freezing temperatures, not even in the northern part of the state.

Municipal water authorities were faced with two problems simultaneously: low to no electricity and freezing temperatures. By regulation, they must have backup power and redundant backup power to ensure that they can provide water when and if the power goes out.

But that didn’t help in the city I live in. When the water purification plant didn’t receive the power it needed, the generators kicked on automatically. But all four generators quickly shut down. They’re diesel generators, and I’m guessing the diesel fuel wasn’t adequately treated for the cold. Diesel is temperature-sensitive, and at about freezing temperatures, the paraffin in the diesel starts to solidify, making it cloudy. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when they pull the injectors, they find that they’re clogged with paraffin.

Water lines in Texas aren’t buried anywhere near as deep as they are in the northern states. It’s not unusual to find local building codes requiring water lines to be installed six feet below ground level in the far north, but they are generally two feet below the surface in Texas. So the extreme cold brought the frost line down to below the water lines, causing pipes to break across the state. Many homes, businesses, and commercial facilities had their water lines break and city distribution lines.

The city where I live had a 30,000 gallon per minute break, which took over four days to find. A building belonging to our neighborhood hospital had its main water inlet break, spilling hundreds of gallons of water on the ground before I found it (I just happened to be the first one to see it). The pipes in a home I’m trying to buy froze and broke, even though the faucets were left on at a trickle.

Water across the state was running at a trickle or less. The entire state instituted a water boil order because the water pressure was low enough. They couldn’t be sure that nothing was leaking into the lines. Grocery stores and other outlets sold out of water on the second day.

Buying water probably brought on the next phase of the cascade, as grocery stores emptied, just like they did in the early days of the COVID Pandemic. Some stores had lines going around the block, with people waiting in the cold to get in as social distancing rules limited the number of shoppers allowed in the stores. Gas stations hung out signs saying they were out of gas.

The entire state went from normal to no power, no water, and no food in days. If this had been a long-term event, such as would have happened had ERCOT not instituted rolling blackouts, then the results would have been catastrophic.

Time for the Blame Game 

As typically happens in situations like this, it took a lot less time for the blame game to start than it did for those working on the problem, even to begin implementing solutions. Some were pointing fingers for political reasons, while others were doing so because they wanted someone to blame for their problems. In either case, the people who were doing the blaming would have been better served using all that hot air to heat their homes.

In reality, the only one to point fingers at is the weather. We haven’t had a freeze like this in Texas in the last 100 years. So it’s not surprising that our infrastructure isn’t designed to withstand it. Spending the money to build that into our systems would be about as useful as buying snowplows, something else we don’t have in Texas.

The people who are complaining to our government and ERCOT forget that it’s expensive to design and build systems hardened against any possible disaster. The engineers designing these systems and the companies that own them have to take financial practicalities into account. It’s a tricky balancing act between avoiding the cost of lost service and spending too much money on building capacities that may never be used. Invariably, it’s a no-win game.

We Americans have gotten spoiled. We are so accustomed to everything being there that our first reaction is to complain when things don’t work the way we think they should. But the truth of the matter is, they never will, not entirely. There will always be things that happen because we can’t effectively plan for every possible contingency.

Prepare for Cascading Events 

As a case study, this has been incredibly useful. One thing it has shown exceptionally clearly is how events cascade, turning one problem into several. The same thing happened in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, although those were mainly supply-related. Still, just knowing how they can and will cascade in a crisis helps us with our planning and preparation.

But this isn’t just limited to major events. Natural disasters can cause cascading failures as well. Hurricanes tend to bring power outages and water shortages as well. At the same time, price gouging exists because there’s generally a shortage of supplies. Just look at Puerto Rico and what happened there after the double-whammy of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

It seems eminently clear at this point that any major event is going to come complete with these cascading effects. Therefore, we must plan for them to happen, not allowing ourselves to isolate any disaster as only one-dimensional.

Those who are using a TEOTWAWKI event, such as an EMP, as the basic outline for their preps are doing it right. While we may never see that EMP, we can expect to see multiple things go wrong simultaneously. Building our prepping plans and stockpiles to take multiple outages at the same time only makes sense.