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Rolling Blackouts in Texas — Sneak Preview of the Brave New World of Deindustrialization

Posted on February 7 2011 4:30 pm

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It is the supreme irony that an outbreak of unusually cold weather has exposed ominous signs of weakness in an industry about to be further hobbled by regulations designed to combat global warming. It is doubly ironic that this should have occurred in a state whose name is more or less synonymous with energy production.

Texas, which produces and consumes more electricity than any other state, experienced power shortages last week sufficient to warrant rolling blackouts and an undertaking (subsequently reneged uponto import power from Mexico.

In fairness to operators such as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – who caught the brunt of the public wrath over the rolling blackouts, especially when critical care facilities also had their lights turned out – it is true that the power shortages were caused by failures of power plants not designed to withstand the cold.

All power plants are built to a certain standard based on the weather expected in their location. The plants in the northern parts of the United States are more weatherized than those in the South, according to electricity traders who used to work at power plants.

In the North, plants have heaters and monitors on water pipes and other equipment outside in the cold that in the past may not have been needed on plants in the South.

But in the South, where temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) for several days in a row, plants are designed to take the heat much better than units in the North.

More than 50 power units representing more than 7,000 megawatts of generating capacity were unable to run Wednesday when the mercury dropped and a fierce winter storm dropped snow and ice on several parts of Texas.

Fair enough, but the larger — and more interesting — question is why sufficient extra capacity wasn’t available in the system to offset the shortfall. One would expect that Texas with a daily demand of around 60,000 MW should be able to withstand a 12% reduction in output without seeking help from another country or turning off the respirators at Parkland Hospital every 45 minutes.

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