The sweeping power outages that left millions of Texans shivering without heat due to extreme winter weather have some wondering if those utility disruptions could happen here in New Jersey.
They already have — at least to a lesser extent. And the changes ordered up after severe winter weather disrupted the power grid here are supposed to prevent what happened in Texas from happening in the Garden State.
In January 2014, PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest grid operator lost 22% of its power load during a polar vortex that froze coal supplies and idled old natural-gas plants typically called on to provide reserve power.
But by convincing industrial customers to curtail demand for electricity, the grid operator averted the kind of widespread outages that occurred this week in Texas. PJM also adopted tough new capacity rules to ensure power suppliers could function in extreme cold or suffer penalties for not living up to commitments.
As a result, customers started paying more on their energy bills, but power plants in PJM, a network that covers New Jersey and parts of the Eastern Seaboard while stretching into Illinois, began investing in weatherizing their generating units and equipment to smoothly operate in extreme weather. Texas, which operates stand-alone from the national power-grid networks, is reported not to have made such investments.
‘Smarter’ than the Lone Star State
“Fortunately, we’ve been a lot smarter than Texas,’’ said New Jersey Rate Counsel director Stefanie Brand. “We did a number of things to make ourselves more resilient.’’
At a morning briefing Thursday on the latest snowstorm to blanket parts of New Jersey, Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso, made the same point. “We constantly work on our infrastructure. That’s the key,’’ he said, adding that could be the problem with Texas.
Some of those things occurred even before the polar vortex seven years ago. “Obviously here, we prepare for the cold weather,’’ Brand said, citing the practice of burying pipelines deeper to prevent the freezing that occurred in Texas. Natural gas could not be delivered to power plants there because moisture accumulated in the pipeline and froze supplies.
Another huge difference between how the grid operator in Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and how PJM work involves how each goes about ensuring there is enough capacity to make sure the lights will stay on.
“PJM has a capacity market; Texas does not,’’ said Glenn Thomas, president of the PJM Providers Group, an organization of power suppliers in the regional power grid. Performance incentives for suppliers have encouraged companies to make the type of investments to improve resilience of the grid, he said. And, if they don’t, there are “onerous penalties’’ for not doing so, he added.
Calling on neighboring states
The other difference is that PJM, if it is needs power supplies, has interconnections with neighboring states served by other regional transmission organizations, experts said. “If this happened to us, we could get help from New York (which has its own RTO), or New England,’’ Brand said.
The Texas system lacks those interconnections. ‘’ERCOT is effectively an island,’’ said Mike Borgatti, a vice president of RTO services at Gabel Associates, a highly regarded energy consulting firm in Highland Park.
In reports from Texas media late yesterday, the power grid was “minutes away” from a catastrophic failure that could have left customers without power for months, according to ERCOT officials. At one point during the event, ERCOT lost 50% of its power load.
PJM did not respond to emails for comments, but in an earlier news release detailing its efforts to prepare for the winter season, it said its members are embarking on maintenance activities to ensure equipment is ready for winter activities. “They make the system work, even as they integrate new practices and protocols in the face of a pandemic,’’ said Manu Asthana, president and CEO of PJM.
Tom Churchelow, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, said the recent events in Texas indicate the importance of reliability and resiliency in every part of the country. “These recent events highlight that prudent investment and planning are critical to future success, as we work our way toward a clean-energy future,’’ he said