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James Burke’s Technology Trap

February 20, 2021

By Paul Homewood

Most people probably don’t realise just how close Texas came to disaster this week. According to ERCOT officials:

The grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic, uncontrolled failure that could have left residents without power for months.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” Bill Magness, president of ERCOT, said of the rolling blackouts that have lasted days rather than hours. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

He added if ERCOT had waited to cut the power “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk..

If the grid had completely gone down it could have taken months to repair.

We are not tgalking about a few temporary blackouts, as James Burke warned us back in the 1960s:

And, of course, things would be far worse now with society’s reliance on computers.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson described wind turbines as “silly fashion accessories”, which sums them up perfectly.

Back in the 60s, James Burke realised the utmost importance of building a foolproof grid. Sadly our leaders and bureaucrats have now lost sight of that. And the public, comfortable in the midst of all the things technology now brings them, have no idea of the perils that await.

  1. JimW permalink
    February 20, 2021 11:53 am

    Tucker is usually spot on, the best US TV commentator by a long way.
    Its no good people talking about more interconnectors, the syatems around Texas couldn’t cope with keeping it going. Texas desperately needs investment in good conventional power plant and quickly, and more gas storage.

  2. Joe Public permalink
    February 20, 2021 11:58 am

    Some of us are old enough to remember when Tomorrow’s World prophesied Salter’s Ducks would generate all the power we were likely to need.

    • Phillip Bratby permalink
      February 20, 2021 12:43 pm

      In the 70’s we had Salters’ Duck and since then we have had others such as Pelamis. None has come to anything for a variety of obvious reasons. But as long as somebody is prepared to pour money into wave power R&D, then you will always find somebody ready to waste it.

      • Robert Christopher permalink
        February 20, 2021 2:59 pm

        The reports I have read indicate that more gas than usual was being used for domestic heating, for obvious reasons, so wasn’t available for generating electricity. This is (very) rare as the greatest demand for electricity is in the Summer, for the air conditioning.

        The solar panels were covered in snow and the windmills weren’t fitted with de-icers, as they are up North, as they thought they wouldn’t be needed.

        I also saw a report, unconfirmed, that some of the equipment used for supplying gas, was powered by windmills – it’s just too funny to be true, but not for those being affected by it.

        So it isn’t just the windmills and solar panels, it’s the loss of focus on supplying the customer with energy, come what may, and that being reflected in the quality of the senior management, and their Engineering skills. This emergency hasn’t occurred during the usual period of greatest demand, so it was a ‘surprise’! Who would have thought that maximum capacity was needed during very cold weather. (It sounds stupid to those used to British weather but, when in Houston, in August, I was told that you could tell a Brit, recently arrived, because he would be carrying a pullover, just in case it turned chilly.)

        All those who thought “Saving the Planet” was at the top of their priorities may want to amend that list.

      • Robert Christopher permalink
        February 20, 2021 3:01 pm

        Sorry, I was expecting this at the end of the comments, not after your post.

  3. Phillip Bratby permalink
    February 20, 2021 11:59 am

    Back in the days of the CEGB, when engineers ran the whole grid system from power station to meter, we had a margin of spare capacity to meet peak demand of about 15 to 25%. Those were the good old days before the Greenblob and useless politicians started interfering in the country’s most important piece of infrastructure.

    • Chaswarnertoo permalink
      February 20, 2021 12:43 pm

      People without STEM degrees shouldn’t be in charge.

    • Jordan permalink
      February 20, 2021 9:49 pm

      That’s right Phillip Bratby,
      it is possible to have very low loss of load probability with spare capacity (“supply margin”) around 25%. This is where the system benefits from a multiplicity of generating units, with individual unit “reliability” over 90%. Unit failures must be statistically independent.
      To achieve this, the CEGB had over 100 large generating units and it avoided single point of failure risk like the plague to assure statistically independent failures.
      The CEGB did quite well at satisfying these criteria, but fell short when it had ~70% coal fired capacity. This was an obvious failure to uphold those principles and it was a significant threat during the miners’ strike.
      I believe there are two main points at hand with treating wind as a provider of security of supply.
      First, the “reliability” of wind as a primary energy resource cannot have a designed-for probability. It will come in the form of a tailed probability distribution function to describe the reliability of wind energy. This will be problematic to map onto some form of equivalent of a designed-for failure rate of a generating unit.
      Secondly, multiplicity does not work when primary energy resource is not statistically independent over wide regions. Regional distribution of wind turbines will still have a lot of correlation in their availability of primary resource, and therefore total wind resource cannot be accurately modelled with any multiplicity.
      In recent years, there has been a move to use of “derating factors” to describe generation adequacy. For example, they are used for the capacity market. This is a form of planning by averages, and is quite different to the approach taken by the CEGB.
      Derating factors will be equivalent to individual unit reliability when the conditions of the method used by the CEGB applies. But they are not equivalent for wind resources for the reasons given above.
      Provision of reserve is expensive. When we have not been in a situation or rationing energy for decades, it will have been tempting to give wind generation a measure of credit as a provider of supply security (the derating factor), and this will have saved quite a lot of money in holding reserve capacity.
      Maybe the lesson from Texas will be a return to the principles developed by the CEGB – statistical independent failure rates and multiplicity are fundamental principles for assessment of security of supply. Maybe the consequence will be an acceptance that wind power contributes very little (even nothing) to supply security. If this is acceptance that more reserve needs to be held in the form of a multiplicity of generating units with designed-for failure rates.
      That’s gonna be expensive.

  4. February 20, 2021 12:09 pm

    Who is James Burke? The day the universe changed? That James Burke?

    • February 20, 2021 1:01 pm

      James Burke on climate change

    • February 20, 2021 1:39 pm

      Used to be on Tomorrow’s World on the BBC in 1960s – they brought news of all the new tech and gadgets

    • Ben Vorlich permalink
      February 20, 2021 1:59 pm

      James Burke, did a series called “Connections” for the BBC, this was in the days when Horizon was a worthwhile watch and Tomorrow’s World showed interesting developments most of which failed. If Connections is on YouTube it would probably still be relevant to watch.

      • February 20, 2021 2:05 pm

        Thank you.

      • Mike Jackson permalink
        February 20, 2021 5:00 pm

        I posted this link a couple of weeks ago. This first episode deals with what would be likely to happen if the electricity went off — and didn’t come back on again!

        This was something of a doomsday scenario at the time, before the days when econutcases had invented ways of making us poorer and short-lived. What it did do was bring home the extent to which are all now dependent on each other since none of us knows anymore how to do/find/make/use 90% of the things we need to keep our lives moving along — and in most cases reliable electric power is at the heart of it from what happens if all the traffic lights in New York fail to how do you get petrol for your car if you’re trying to flee the inevitable chaos.

        The whole series is worth watching but this episode should be compulsory viewing for anybody who thinks climate change could be worse — politicians and their greenie girl friends especially.

  5. Phoenix44 permalink
    February 20, 2021 12:11 pm

    I very much doubt it politicians have ever know anything about Grid stability. They never really needed to as the political objective was always to have reliable, cheap, safe energy. Once you change those objectives all sorts of things are likely to happen.

  6. Micky R permalink
    February 20, 2021 12:27 pm

    James Burke was an excellent presenter, as was Raymond Baxter.

    The UK took steps to improve grid stability in previous decades e.g. pumped storage, “black start”. The greatest stability is achieved with traditional synchronous turbo-generators, a local stockpile of fuel at the power station and a robust transmission system.

    On an individual household basis, there is a lot to be said for oil-fired central heating, a wood burner and a small generator.

    • Phillip Bratby permalink
      February 20, 2021 12:35 pm

      I too have all three.

    • Chaswarnertoo permalink
      February 20, 2021 12:45 pm

      Two wood burners and a three year log pile.

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      February 20, 2021 3:17 pm

      I have a friend who lives “off grid” on the edge of Exmoor in Somerset. He has a 5kW gennie, a powerwall (to allow the gennie to run most efficiently) a 2500l diesel tank (heating and hot water) and four 47kg propane cylinders that run the absorption refrigerator (it’ s a 3 way unit) and cooker/hob. When I asked why no solar panels or even a wind turbine (he has space for one) he just laughed and told me to be serious.

  7. GeoffB permalink
    February 20, 2021 12:30 pm

    Telegraph article today (20/02/21) Blackouts in energy rich texas…… my comment
    Geoff Be
    20 Feb 2021 10:32AM
    The UK will be suffering blackouts in the very near future, just like Texas and California. The reason is a gross failure to understand the actual requirements for maintaining the reliability of an alternating current, high voltage, grid system. The main requirement is reliable sources of dispatchable power, that is power that man controls, gas, coal, nuclear, oil. Intermittent sources that nature controls, wind, solar are no good.

    It is not even a question of “climate emergency” you need reliable generation..full stop.

  8. Jack Broughton permalink
    February 20, 2021 12:30 pm

    Interestingly the BBC web site has grudgingly acknowledged that the outages occurred and Texas has problems. Their “Fact Checker” claims that the fossil-fuel plant outages were the main cause of the problem and that the windmills were not to blame…….. “Fact checker” my ***.

    • GeoffB permalink
      February 20, 2021 12:44 pm

      If they had built more gas plants and made the existing more reliable rather than investing in wind, then the emergency would have probably been manageable . Dispatchable power sources should be at least 90% of grid capacity.

      • Hivemind permalink
        February 20, 2021 8:59 pm

        And you never plan to use more than that 90% capacity.

    • Chaswarnertoo permalink
      February 20, 2021 12:46 pm

      She’s 24 you know. IQ.

    • Micky R permalink
      February 20, 2021 1:16 pm

      Difficult to find detailed explanations as to why coal and gas fired failed in Texas. The Washington Examiner February 19, 2021 provides some clues re the reported failure of coal-fired (design was not required to ensure that the plant operates in cold weather).

      The article also states that

      ERCOT, for example, hasn’t released daily outage reports yet specifying which plants went offline and when, details that will help fill in the sequence of events that led to the crisis.

      • Ray Sanders permalink
        February 20, 2021 3:27 pm

        One of the gas problems relates to the issue of it not being “dehumidified” and consequently its water content (albeit low) froze (formed clathrates) and this blocked the system. In consistently cold climates it is routine to “dehydrate” the methane to get around the problem as this will not freeze until it gets down to 91.5K and nobody would be around in that temperature!

      • bobn permalink
        February 20, 2021 8:31 pm

        Wash exam article is Bs. Gas and coal didnt fail. see here,

  9. sid permalink
    February 20, 2021 1:31 pm

    It will be sad for some but a major and total power failure could well be the first step in turning back the green tide

    • Gerry, England permalink
      February 20, 2021 2:47 pm

      Couldn’t agree more. Sadly it might take more than one or two as in the first instance when asked how to prevent grid failures, some so called scientist will suggest batteries. And then we will need to see how that fails before we can move forward again to what we used to have. So far 37 have died in Texas but it may well be more.

      Robert of iceagenow lives in Texas and has endured 5 days of no power and a water supply reduced to a trickle, with temps even into minus Fahrenheit territory. Good news is that the worst has passed…this time.

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      February 20, 2021 3:34 pm

      The website below is a serious discussion on how a grid could be taken down by a computer hacker getting into the grid tie inverters of solar panel systems. Another option to bring down a grid is well coordinated public action to simultaneously overloading the grid demand (switching on high power appliances like instant electric showers) and then rapidly unloading it by switching everything off. Remember the 2000fFuel Protest action?

  10. It doesn't add up... permalink
    February 20, 2021 1:55 pm

    My guess (looking at the EIA hourly generation data) is that events went something like this:

    On the afternoon of the 14th, with demand forecast to hit records in the evening, the ERCOT control room was manned by the most experienced team, and they succeeded in meeting the demand peak (8 p.m.) by cranking up the available gas generation pretty much to maximum and with the aid of still about 8GW of wind generation. There will have been a shift change, and with the expectation that overnight demand would fall back, but the following daytime would again be very challenging, it’s likely a less experienced team took over.

    To begin with demand did ease off slightly, and dropping wind generation still allowed a small easing of gas generation as well. Then sometime after midnight the first gas generator tripped out – a plant failure of some kind, perhaps due to a problem with inadequate water feed for cooling. No problem in the control room: they rustled up some hydro and asked for a bit more coal burn. Between 1 and 2 a.m. they lost almost 2 GW of gas generation, and they ran out of spare coal capacity which they maxed. It’s already possible that these were cascading trips and at least partly motivated by underfrequency.

    Just after 2 a.m. all hell broke loose, with 9.2GW lost including 7.3GW of gas and 1.75GW of coal. That was almost certainly mainly caused by cascading trips for underfrequency. Underfrequency occurs when supply is less than demand, and when the frequency drops too far plants start tripping out for safety reasons: they are not designed to operate at full load at rotation speeds that can set up mechanical instabilities and lead to the plant destroying itself. There are two ways to deal with underfrequency: find some spare generation capacity PDQ to restore balance – or start instituting blackouts to curb demand below the available supply. A bit like flying a large aircraft or piloting a large vessel, system response is lagged, so it can be difficult to guess whether you have done enough or not, especially with the risk of other trips worsening the situation.

    My guess therefore is that the inexperienced team did not impose blackouts fast enough to restore grid balance, and that in consequence more plants were tripped out, requiring even more blackouts to restore balance. I suspect they may not have been helped by there not really being a plan in place to dictate where blackouts should be imposed when they suddenly had to run much deeper. Grid management software normally operates to have contingency set for the loss of the single largest element on the system, and to cater for any individual loss whether of transmission, generation or demand. Although there were clearly some plans to maintain power to critical users (e.g. hospitals), it is doubtful that anyone had really considered the effects of knocking off over 10GW in short order.

    What we see in the hours after that are mostly more sporadic losses, including one of the nuclear plants (known to be a frozen water feed problem), some coal and another 5GW+ of gas. This is where there is a combination of plant failures and gas supply problems, likely caused by loss of power to gas pipelines. Some of these losses might not have occurred had earlier losses been stemmed more quickly.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      February 21, 2021 12:50 am

      I now have proof that the grid frequency was already struggling heavily at 1:52 a.m., dropping to 59.334Hz, which is just above the 59.3Hz at which some automated load shedding takes place. Unfortunately this is only a point in time snapshot – we really need a chart of grid frequency say every 15 seconds or better to gain more insight.

    • MikeHig permalink
      February 21, 2021 10:24 am

      Thanks for that analysis, idau.
      I suspected something like the chain of events you describe after seeing a graph which showed a precipitate drop in generation early in the morning. My guess was that it might have been the remaining wind plants as, afaik, they are very sensitive to grid disturbances with very limited “ride-through” capability.

      There’s a good article on Prof Curry’s website which explains how the Texas grid came to this situation. Basically no value was placed on reliability in the economic criteria driving the market. Indeed, there was a counterintuitive twist whereby the plants that stayed online made out like bandits from spiking power prices – up to $9000/MWh. Had there been adequate investment in reliability, that windfall would not have happened.

  11. mwhite permalink
    February 20, 2021 2:45 pm

    “Remember when it got really cold”

    “The first known Galveston Bay freeze came during the winter of 1821”

    So when they try to blame this on Global Warming…………

  12. Devoncamel permalink
    February 20, 2021 2:48 pm

    When energy policy is driven by climate change politics and the obsession with carbon reduction are we surprised by the big Texas turn-off? Engineering and science together with proper contingency planning should be re-adopted before the green loons plunge us into cold and darkness.
    To borrow your words Paul, we have been warned.

  13. Robert Christopher permalink
    February 20, 2021 3:02 pm

    Sorry, I was expecting this at the end of the comments, not after your post.

  14. Mad Mike permalink
    February 20, 2021 3:30 pm

    At least ERCOT are admitting the problem and how bad it could have been as if it wasn’t bad enough.

    “It needed to be addressed immediately,” Bill Magness, president of ERCOT, said of the rolling blackouts that have lasted days rather than hours. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

    He added if ERCOT had waited to cut the power “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

    “If the grid had completely gone down it could have taken months to repair, The Tribune reported.”

    I hope Boris is taking note.

    • mwhite permalink
      February 20, 2021 3:59 pm

      His other half will tell him to build more windmills

      • Penda100 permalink
        February 20, 2021 6:58 pm

        According to the ever-reliable BBC, the black outs were caused by the failure of the gas, coal and nuclear generators. Therefore The logical thing is to get rid of all fossil fuel and nuclear as quickly as possible and replace it with nice green wind and solar. Obvious really – oh, and then wait for the total failure of the grid when the wind doesn’t blow.

      • Gerry, England permalink
        February 21, 2021 11:19 am

        The Woke Left are in full lying mode on the Texas windmill failure and it has even spread to the financial pages of the Daily Mail when Alex Brummer described the wind failure as ‘Republican fake news’.

        At least 37 dead so far but there might be a lot more to find. Carbon monoxide poisoning cases are up as people lit their barbecues indoors – anything to have heat or cook food it they had any. There is even a video of a tropical fish tank frozen up. Over 6000 cold records have been set between 7 and 19 Feb – that is coldest minimum and maximum temps.

  15. Curious George permalink
    February 20, 2021 5:20 pm

    Unreliables don’t have a backup, everything works nicely and Texas is a poster child of the wind energy. But what damn pessimist would spend money on a worst case scenario?

    • sid permalink
      February 21, 2021 8:02 am

      what damn pessimist would spend money on a worst case scenario?

      A gov. I thought thats what they were there for

  16. It doesn't add up... permalink
    February 20, 2021 6:50 pm

    The problems are far from over. LNG exports have halted with gas diverted inland. The refineries shut down will take a long time to restart, keepinng supplies of gasoline and diesel very tight.

    There may even be a need to dip into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for product supply, those as most of it is crude oil that doesn’t help with no refineries.

    Longer term, Biden’s anti oil industry attitude is going to hit Gulf of Mexico production and the US balance of payments.

  17. Gerry, England permalink
    February 21, 2021 11:46 am

    In the days of James Burke and Raymond Burr, the BBC was a totally different organisation staffed by honest people. Raymond Burr flew Spitfires and was involved in dealing with V1s if I recall correctly.

    Tomorrow’s World did show a lot of things that never came to pass but I still recall one in particular that did as I experienced one not soon after. They showed a device that squirted an air jet into your eyeball to measure the pressure for checking for glaucoma. And not too long after I was having my eyes tested when the optician wheeled out this device and started explaining what it did. He was somewhat surprised when I told him I knew what it was.

  18. tomo permalink
    February 22, 2021 6:03 pm

    There’s going to be much indignation and spitting of feathers when the contents of this report are implemented !

    Click to access DCP-371_Last-resort-arrangements-for-Distributors-to-manage-specific-consumer-connected-devices.pdf

    – and – they will be …

    I wonder when EV sellers are going to get into the CHP / generator leasing game?

    • tomo permalink
      February 22, 2021 6:06 pm

      A mains gas or red diesel fuelled generator every 6 dwellings anybody?

      • tomo permalink
        February 22, 2021 6:08 pm

        oopd wrong thread!

  19. Gamecock permalink
    February 22, 2021 10:35 pm

    I had forgotten Burke. He was an excellent presenter!

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