When infrastructure does not work as expected, Texas grid edition

The bitter cold in Texas has created problems for the grid. I found a 2011 article helpful in understanding a bit more about how power works in Texas:

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

The separation of the Texas grid from the rest of the country has its origins in the evolution of electric utilities early last century. In the decades after Thomas Edison turned on the country’s first power plant in Manhattan in 1882, small generating plants sprouted across Texas, bringing electric light to cities. Later, particularly during the first world war, utilities began to link themselves together. These ties, and the accompanying transmission network, grew further during the second world war, when several Texas utilities joined together to form the Texas Interconnected System, which allowed them to link to the big dams along Texas rivers and also send extra electricity to support the ramped-up factories aiding the war effort.

The Texas Interconnected System — which for a long time was actually operated by two discrete entities, one for northern Texas and one for southern Texas — had another priority: staying out of the reach of federal regulators. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules. “Freedom from federal regulation was a cherished goal — more so because Texas had no regulation until the 1970s,” writes Richard D. Cudahy in a 1995 article, “The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection.” (Self-reliance was also made easier in Texas, especially in the early days, because the state has substantial coal, natural gas and oil resources of its own to fuel power plants.)

ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. The agency assumed additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission.

Historically, the Texas grid’s independence has been violated a few times. Once was during World War II, when special provisions were made to link Texas to other grids, according to Cudahy. Another episode occurred in 1976 after a Texas utility, for reasons relating to its own regulatory needs, deliberately flipped a switch and sent power to Oklahoma for a few hours. This event, known as the “Midnight Connection,” set off a major legal battle that could have brought Texas under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, but it was ultimately resolved in favor of continued Texan independence.

I have contended before that few people pay much attention to infrastructure until something goes wrong. When electricity, natural gas, water, roads, mass transit, and more operate normally, we do not think about them much. They just work. Until they don’t.

A short event last summer reminded me of this. Our family was about to leave our house for a trip and right as we were closing everything up, the power went out. In such a situation, what do you do? Stay and make sure all essential systems are back on – refrigerator, sump pump, air conditioning – before leaving? Just go and hope for the best? We stuck around for a little bit, power was restored, and we were on our way. And this happened in a location where we rarely lose electricity and most of the power lines are underground.

Our situation was a drop in the bucket compared to a severe storm or change in weather like Texas is experiencing. It all works until it is knocked out and millions of people are affected. Then, everyone wants to know what is going wrong. What is taking so long? Is there a way to quickly reestablish service or are people at the mercy of the cold? Certainly, the return of power and services will be accompanied by serious conversations about what to do to ensure something similar does not happen again.

And then there are the peculiarities of local infrastructure. How was it built? How is it managed? Who makes the decisions and what are the priorities for the systems? Is it prepared for a crisis? Some places take great pride in the infrastructure. As an example, the Chicago story of reversing the Chicago River to help improve public health is told over and over as a notable achievement. The construction of Deep Tunnel is a sizable project.

But, these are the big projects. Power, gas, and water are just supposed to be there. While some property owners, often in more rural areas, might have to deal with this more on their own (wells, propane tanks, septic fields, etc.), this is part of the urban and suburban bargain: you live there and the services work (and might even be relatively cheap – see the example of water).

Perhaps this will lead to more consideration of infrastructure. Build a strong infrastructure and it will help keep different and important parts of society running. When it fails, everyone struggles.

California’s biggest cities without blackouts, suburbs have them

A journalist looks into why California’s power blackouts have hit some suburbs but not the biggest cities:

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result…

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

These reasons make some sense. Denser urban areas are less likely to have large areas of foliage and nature in addition to exposed power lines through which fires can easily spread.

At the same time, it might be difficult to make a case when many people in the state are affected by the blackouts and others are not “sharing the burden.” Do such choices provide economic benefits to certain areas while others are hurt?

The case of Los Angeles could get pretty interesting in this regard in that there are some more natural areas surrounding the city and separating communities. The Getty fire above is a good example; the museum and the surrounding homes sit on less dense land on hillsides overlooking the city. Could a fire break out there and then end up on either side of the hills/mountains and spread to urban and suburban land?

If my efficient neighbors use 300 kWh less electricity in a month, they must be…

ComEd now sends me a Home Energy Report each month. The latest has this comparison:


Who are these neighbors, the most efficient 20%, that can use so much less electricity? Some guesses at their lives:

-single-person or two-person households (and no kids)

-very little to no air conditioner use

-no DVRs

-no kitchen appliances above the bare minimum or very few

-perhaps not home very much

I know the goal of such reports is to nudge people toward the actions of their most efficient neighbors. The comparison between households is supposed to incentivize me to change my behaviors. However, given the composition of my household plus some creature comforts we have, can we ever really aspire to get to those most efficient neighbors?

Additionally, the chart suggests I am below average in my electricity use. Some might read this and take comfort in knowing what their doing is already put them ahead of others. The smiley face next to the bars reinforces this idea. Should this report ultimately communicate to me that I do not need to change anything?

What might be more useful – and difficult for the electric companies to get their hands on – is data they could report about electricity use for particular home features. Perhaps even presenting a profile of the “average efficient neighbor” might make joining that group seem more possible. Do they live in a house with no AC and no lights? If not, what are they allowed and how do they keep their use so low? This would also help educate consumers on how much electricity items use. It is hard to know this and there are devices that use much more energy than people would expect.

The Swiss Cheese Model for dealing with industrial accidents

I was recently reading The Grid by Gretchen Bakke where a discussion of massive power plant brownouts led to discussing two approaches to industrial accidents:

One might be given to think that this blackout might have been prevented if somebody had just noticed as things slowly went awry – if in 2002 all of FirstEnergy’s “known common problems” had been dealt with rather than merely 17 percent of them, if the trees had been clipped, if a bright young eye had seen the static in the screen. But what most students of industrial accidents recognize is that perfect knowledge of complex systems is not actually the best way to make these systems safe and reliable. In part because perfect real-time knowledge is extremely difficult to come by, not only for the grid but for other dangerous yet necessary elements of modern life – like airplanes and nuclear power plants. One can just never be sure that every single bit of necessary information is being accurately tracked (and God knows what havoc those missing bits are wreaking while they presumed to-be-known bits chug along their orderly way). Even if we could eliminate all the “unknown unknowns” (to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld) from systems engineering – and we can’t – there would still be a serious problem to contend with, and that is how even closely monitored elements interact with each other in real time. And of course humans, who are always also component parts of these systems, rarely function as predictable as even the shoddiest of mechanical elements.

Rather than attempting the impossible feat of perfect control grounded in perfect information, complex industrial undertaking have for decades been veering toward another model for avoiding serious disaster. This would also seem to be the right approach for the grid, as its premise is that imperfect knowledge should not impede safe, steady functioning. The so-called Swiss Cheese Model of Industrial Accidents assumes glitches all over the place, tiny little failures or unpredicted oddities as a normal side effect of complexity. Rather than trying to “know and control” systems designers attempt to build, manage, and regulate complexity in such a way that small things are significantly impeded on their path to becoming catastrophically massive things. Three trees and a bug shouldn’t black out half the country. (p.135-136)

Social systems today are increasingly complex – see a recent post about the increasing complexity of cities – and we have more and more data regarding the components and the whole of systems. However, as this example illustrates, humans don’t always know what to do with all this data or see the necessary patterns.

The Swiss Cheese Model seems to privilege redundancy and resiliency over stopping all problems. At the same time, I assume there are limits to how many holes in the cheese are allowed, particularly when millions of residents might be affected. Who sets that limit and how is that decision made? We’ll accept a certain number of electrical failures each year but no more?

Heading off a future where American cities suffer more power outages

One sign of urban growth around the world is the proliferation of urban lights. But, what happens if many American cities are at risk for blackouts?

Electricity blackouts will become more common as surging power demand outpaces public and private utilities’ abilities to provide a continuous and reliable flow of power to customers, a new research paper asserts.

The problem, while global in scope, could be especially pronounced in urban areas where old and often fragile power distribution systems are being tested in ways not conceived of a generation ago, states the research paper that examined the causes behind 50 blackout events in 26 countries since 2003, including several major U.S. outages.

“Understanding the nature of blackouts is more than just a record of past failures,” researchers Hugh Byrd and Steve Matthewman write in the Journal of Urban Technology. “[B]lackouts are dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity, and as urban areas become more compact, with greater consequences.”

Their research paper, titled “Energy and the City: The Technology and Sociology of Power (Failure),” is the latest in a series of studies examining grid failures and warning that the world should “prepare for the prospect of coping without electricity as instances of complete power failure become increasingly common.”…

The paper estimates the economic damage caused by power outages in the United States alone at $25 billion to $180 billion annually, although the indirect costs of such disruptions could be up to five times greater.

It is a little difficult to operate a world-class city when the power is out or if there are consistent threats of blackouts. As this paper suggests, such incidents could be crippling given the amount of critical infrastructure and day-to-day necessities are dependent on electricity.

If this is the case, what are cities doing about it? Not having enough electricity is a fundamental issue that requires large-scale attention. Building power plants, transmission lines, and resilient systems are not sexy but they are critical.

Fake Georgian office building to hide electric substation next to fake Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago

It is not uncommon for cities to have fake buildings or facades to hide infrastructure and here is an example in Chicago where the same architect designed the Hard Rock Cafe and fake mansion next door:

The most noteworthy, a faux Georgian mansion in the River North area of downtown, was designed by perhaps the city’s most famous living architect, Stanley Tigerman, former director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The building is somewhat tongue-in-cheek , a bit of a joke,” said Tigerman, who had first designed a restaurant just west of the site. “The Hard Rock Cafe: fake stucco, fake Georgian, nothing real about it. Then they came to me and wanted me to do the ComEd substation next door, but to be contextual, to relate it to this ersatz piece of junk.”

So rather than construct a bogus building based on a fake, albeit one he designed, Tigerman cut the other direction.

“I decided to go absolutely hard core, as classically designed as I could, done authentically Georgian,” he said. “The brick bonding is  English cross bond, the one Mies van der Rohe used whenever he used brick. It’s very expensive to to lay bricks that way, but it makes the walls sturdy and impervious to cracking. I knew the building would never receive any maintenance, so the idea was to do as good a building as I could.”

He also had to take into account the building’s true purpose — so if you look closely, what seem to be windows are actually vents, to help cool the 138 kV electrical transmission equipment inside.

Hiding in plain sight. Here is the Google Streetview image of the two buildings, the covered substation on the left and the Hard Rock Cafe on the right:


This could lead to a great architecture conversation: which of the buildings is more fake or authentic? The restaurant which is about evoking a particular spirit (a museum? an imposing older structure intended to lend more gravitas to rock ‘n’ roll?) to make money? Or the fake mansion with more pure design that does nothing but hide the infrastructure that is necessary for big cities? Both could be considered postmodern for their application of old styles to new purposes, their exteriors projecting certain images that don’t match their interiors.

Limit power outages by burying power lines

An editorial from USA Today argues for burying power lines in order to limit the effect of storms:

People served by buried lines have dramatically fewer outages, according to two studies by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utility companies.The idea is good enough that many American cities put most lines underground years ago, and lines for most new subdivisions are buried. Overall, though, roughly 80% of lines in the USA still hang overhead.

Such “undergrounding” of power lines can be pricey. But the figure opponents commonly cite — 10 times as expensive as stringing lines overhead — is misleading. The actual cost can be half that, or less, depending on local conditions and whether lines are buried when developments are built or when roads are being torn up anyway.

The best idea is to identify the lines most likely to get knocked down and begin by burying those. A study for Pepco, the underperforming Washington-area utility, found that while burying all lines would cost $5.8 billion and add a ridiculous $107 a month to customer bills for 30 years, burying just the most vulnerable lines would cost about one-sixth as much and prevent 65% of outages, a more reasonable tradeoff.

Even with a reduced figure for burying the power lines now, this serves as a reminder that the best time to bury the power lines would have been years ago when the developments were first built. Doing so after the fact costs more money and mars a lot of property while the burying is taking place. Putting the money into burying the lines in the first place saves a lot of hassle down the road (hence, different rules for newer developments).

An added bonus: having fewer overhead lines looks better. Imagine pristine residential or commercial streets without power lines and poles all over the place.

McMansion owners in the Chicago suburbs get cheaper ComEd rates than city-dwellers

Crain’s Chicago Business highlights an interesting part of the regulations for ComEd: a suburban homeowner pays a more advantageous rater than a city resident.

The reason: The price to reserve “capacity”—the right to buy electricity during peak-demand periods—will soar next June. That rising cost, which is embedded in the energy price on customers’ electric bills, will hit households consuming small amounts of power far harder than owners of large homes using a lot of electricity. Residents of wealthy suburbs with larger, high-consumption homes could well pay 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour less for electricity than city residents.

Why? ComEd allocates the capacity charge evenly among all residential customers regardless of their usage. So the owner of a city bungalow consuming 500 kilowatt-hours per month pays the same dollar amount for capacity as the owner of a McMansion in the suburbs using three times as much. The McMansion owner’s total electric bill will be higher than the bungalow owner’s, but the McMansion owner will pay less per kilowatt-hour because the added capacity charge makes up a much smaller percentage of the total.

This disparity hasn’t been an issue to date because capacity costs have been unusually low over the past two years. But the price for capacity in PJM Interconnection—the 13-state power grid that includes northern Illinois—will rise 350 percent for the year beginning in June 2014. That will have a bigger impact on towns and cities with lots of small-usage households such as Chicago than it will on suburbs featuring larger homes…

Evidence of “have” and “have-not” municipalities already is starting to appear. Two wealthy north suburbs with many large homes, Bannockburn and Kildeer, last month locked in an energy price for their residents of just below 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for the next two years beginning in September. By contrast, under the Integrys contract, Chicago residents pay 5.42 cents, or 8 percent more. And next May, when the city must reprice the deal, it’s expected to struggle to beat a ComEd price that will approach 7 cents.

The article doesn’t answer the most basic question: how did this disparity end up in the regulations in the first place?

The article suggests that people in the city or suburbs should be paying the same electricity rate. It is only fair to pay equally. But, I wonder if some wouldn’t argue that the suburbanites who are more spread out, require more infrastructure to reach this larger area, and tend to live in bigger houses should actually be paying higher rates. Couldn’t that be written into the regulations? This may not be politically popular but I imagine the argument could be made. Indeed, using the term McMansion in comparison to the humble Chicago bungalow leans in this direction by referring to unnecessarily large homes.

Bury power lines to reduce outages

Amidst widespread power outages, David Frum argues that the United States should pursue a particular infrastructure goal: bury more power lines.

The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.

Cost matters.

But now reflect:

1. There’s reason to think that industry estimates of the cost of burying wires are inflated. While the U.S. industry guesstimates costs, a large-scale study of the problem conducted recently in the United Kingdom estimated the cost premium at 4.5 to 5.5 times the cost of overhead wire, not 10.

2. U.S. cost figures are a moving target. American cities are becoming denser as the baby boomers age and opt for central-city living, as I discussed in a previous column. Denser cities require fewer miles of wire to serve their populations.

3. Costs can only be understood in relation to benefits. As the climate warms, storms and power outages are becoming more common. And as the population ages, power failures become more dangerous. In France, where air conditioning is uncommon, a 2003 heat wave left 10,000 people dead, almost all of them elderly. If burying power lines prevented power outages during the hotter summers ahead, the decision could save many lives.

4. As you may have heard, we’re suffering very severe unemployment just at present. Joblessness is acute among less educated workers, many of whom used to work in the now severely depressed construction industry. Burying power lines is a project that could put many hundreds of thousands of the unemployed to work at tasks that make use of their skills and experience.

I don’t think you have to make a stimulus argument to get power lines buried. You could also make an aesthetic argument: many would suggest power lines are ugly. In denser areas, power lines clog up the streetscape and in more rural areas power lines block natural views.

While Frum suggests costs are indeed an issue, couldn’t local communities take care of this in their ordinances and zoning? For example, a city could require that new developments have to have buried power lines. Perhaps the cat is already out of the bag on this one but how many new developments in the US have buried power lines?

Another note: I live in a neighborhood where the power lines are buried. I do think it looks a lot better. However, this is not a fool-proof solution. Last summer, our power went out four or five times, several of these more than one day. This required the power company to come out and dig up areas throughout the neighborhood. If you came to our neighborhood today, you can still see where they did their digging and sort of planted grass again. Second, our neighborhood is connected to several other neighborhoods by above ground wires. Therefore, we could still lose power as a neighborhood if these overhead lines all went down. Thus, you would need to pursue burying power lines on a broad scale for everyone to benefit.

A Prius can only power a McMansion for a few hours but a Japanese home for four days

A future study will look at how a Toyota Prius can power a home:

Pull electricity from a Toyota Prius Plug-in to a McMansion, and the lights may go out within a matter of a couple of hours. For a typical Japanese house, though, you’d be taken care of for the better part of a week.

Toyota said it will start testing a vehicle-to-home (V2H) system with the Prius Plug-in in Japan by the end of the year. The trial will involve a two-way power-supply system in which the car could supply the home with power in the event of a black-out. About 10 Toyota City homes will be involved in the testing.

The Japanese automaker says a fully-charged, filled-up Prius Plug-In can supply a typical Japanese house with 10 kilowatts, or enough for about four days. In addition to supplying power to blacked-out homes, the car will eventually be able to power up emergency shelters and other buildings.

Last August, Nissan started testing a similar system with its battery-electric Leaf, which the automaker said could provide about two days electricity for an average Japanese home when the car is fully charged. Nissan said it intended to commercialize the system, but didn’t provide further details.

So, if you are really worried about your power supply, one option is to buy a Toyota Prius and purchase a Japanese-sized home. Figures from 2003 suggest the average Japanese home has about 1,021 square feet. Or, you could go further: pair a Prius with a Japanese or American “tiny house” and have power for even longer!

In the long run, is having the Prius help power your home (or other objects) a greener outcome?