Guest columnist Mike Hempstead: Consider a power system based on stored renewable energy

  • Howard and Nena Mamu eat dinner at their home in the Glenwood neighborhood in Hutto, Texas, Tuesday, Feb 16. Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Published: 3/24/2021 11:11:45 AM

The February power grid failure in Texas caused 4.6 million customers to lose power, cost an estimated $195 billion in property damage, and took the lives some 70 people, including that of an 11-year-old boy who froze to death in his bed.

As tragic as this toll is, we now know Texas came 277 seconds away from a disaster orders of magnitude worse. On the early morning of Feb. 15, temperatures plunged to -2 F at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and electric demand on the ERCOT grid hit an all-time high of 69,150 megawatts. ERCOT reports that at 1:14 a.m., as power generators failed and dropped offline, grid operating frequency dipped perilously below its required 60 Hertz. For five harrowing minutes officials scrambled to restore frequency with rolling blackouts. If the frequency dip had lasted another four minutes and 37 seconds grid function would have collapsed utterly, plunging 9 million Texans into a blackout of weeks if not months.

Recovery from a total grid failure requires a “black start” involving the incremental reactivation of generation units with massive diesel generators. A black start has never been attempted on such a large grid.

It is difficult to envision the impact on civilization of a several weeks blackout on 9 million people in the dead of winter. Most Texans recovered power in one to three days and temperatures mostly returned to above freezing. But even so, furniture was burned for heat, stores ran out of food, and some people scooped river water with trash buckets after water pressure fell.

Why did the Texas grid fail? Was it the deregulation? The cost-cutting? Surely, this set the bar low, but fundamentally the Texas grid failed for one reason: the winter storm exceeded its “weather design limit.” Every grid has a weather design limit, and those limits were set decades ago, before the spawn of today’s super storm.

As climate change intensifies weather, and infrastructure ages, our blackout risk is increasing. Indeed, blackouts are becoming more frequent. Eaton’s Blackout Tracker reports that power outages affected 13 million Americans in 2009, rising to 27 million by 2017.

While weather is a substantial risk to the grid, it’s not the only one. According the Government Accountability Office 2019 report, the electric grid is at an increasing threat of cyberattack from “nations, criminal groups, terrorists and others [who] are increasingly capable of attacking the grid.” Just last month hackers gained remote access to the water supply in the town of Oldsmar, Florida and attempted to boost 100-fold the level of lye in the municipal drinking water, potentially sickening up to 15,000 people. The cyberattack was thwarted and no one was sickened, but neither have any suspects been identified.

Whether caused by weather or other means, the one-two punch of a prolonged, widespread blackout accompanied by extreme cold is a very real threat even here in New England. To avoid the most severe outcomes, we need to decentralize power generation by investing in distributed wind and solar plus battery storage. By decentralizing power generation, we decrease systemic vulnerabilities of few power plants transmitting power over long distances to many customers.

Battery storage solves the “intermittency problem” of renewables by making energy available on demand, like at night and on cloudy or windless days. This makes renewables reliable enough to replace more fossil fuel generation which also reduces climate-altering pollution.

The good news is that Massachusetts already has very progressive programs to incentivize battery storage paired with solar. Battery storage is now required alongside commercial solar installations of 500 kw or greater (enough to power about 50 homes).

On an individual level, those of us who can should consider investing in a home energy system consisting of rooftop solar and battery storage. This provides a very definite benefit to the homeowner — when grid power goes out, you will have lights, heat, refrigeration and connectivity. You will also avoid downtime during nuisance outages. And far from being a “me” solution, the more solar plus storage, the less need for fossil fuels and less strain on the grid. In fact, Massachusetts’ new “Connected Solutions” program makes individual batteries a shared resource by incentivizing battery owners to stabilize the gird during periods of peak demand. Imagine, thousands or even tens-of-thousands of batteries across the state simultaneously releasing energy back into the grid to stabilize it and lower demand spikes. This program is happening now and the more people who join, the bigger effect it will have.

Batteries paired with solar are already eligible for the Federal Solar Tax Credit, and the new Connected Solutions incentives covers much of the remaining cost along with zero-interest loans to homeowners regardless of income or tax status. As batteries proliferate, it will even be possible to form neighborhood micro-grids linking households together so no one is without power.

If we work together, a reimagined and decentralized power system based on stored renewable energy is within reach. The faster we can make this happen, the more secure we will all be.

Mike Hempstead is the president and co-owner of Valley Solar.


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