Last month, Texans saw freezing temperatures and rolling blackouts. However, this wasn’t the first time something like this occurred. In 2011, a winter storm also caused rolling blackouts in the state. But while many New Englanders are used to severe winter storms, few have experienced rolling blackouts themselves. So what exactly caused these blackouts in Texas and could the same thing happen in New England?
It is difficult to provide a definite “no'' to this question because all utility grids will have to handle extreme weather events in the future. And, they are only expected to be more severe and happen more frequently due to climate change. For instance, the U.S. Global Change Research Program states that “more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.” However, the impacts of an extreme weather event on the utility grid would likely be less severe in New England for a few reasons.
1) New Englanders are Used to Extreme Weather: Their Grid is Weatherized
If you have ever spent time in Texas you know that the weather is fairly consistent and predictable. However, in New England, this isn’t the case. It might be snowing one day and 60 degrees and sunny the next… or even on the same day. Because of this, the New England utility grid is weatherized against harsh winters and hot summers. That means that the New England utility grid is likely better prepared to handle extreme weather events than utility grids that have not been weatherized against these events.
2) New England Pays to Have Back Up
Typically you buy insurance for those “just-in-case” moments. You might have car insurance just in case there’s a car accident or home insurance just in case your roof has a leak. In any of these instances, you pay a little every month to protect yourself against an unfortunate future event. Many utilities in the U.S. do something similar. Local electricity market governing bodies, which facilitate power generation, market transactions, and reliability, often have what's called a capacity market. A piece from Penn State explains this concept well by stating that this is when “electricity markets offer power generators payments for the capacity that they have ready to produce electricity, not just for the electricity that they actually produce.”
This happens in New England. ISO New England (ISO NE) is “...responsible for keeping electricity flowing across the six New England states and ensuring that the region has reliable, competitively priced wholesale electricity...” In essence, ISO NE is similar to an air traffic controller, because it dictates when and what power generators are deployed on the utility grid. To ensure that electricity keeps flowing across New England, ISO NE pays to have a capacity market so that energy sources have the capacity to produce additional energy if they were ever needed. While paying for this type of backup makes the energy prices in New England somewhat higher than other places in the country, it helps to minimize the occurrence of blackouts. The majority of Texas’ market does not have a capacity market which is one of the reasons why electricity prices in Texas are so low. However, when this severe storm hit Texas, they were not prepared for the spike in energy demand that ensued and they didn’t have the “insurance” to help supply it.
3) New England’s Utility Grid is Connected to Other Utilities
Finally, the majority of Texas has its own utility grid that is siloed from the rest of the country because they are typically able to produce the energy required by their population. In the case of this storm, no other utilities could supply Texas with energy because they weren’t connected. However, this is not the case for most other U.S. electricity grids. ISO NE for instance, is connected to surrounding power generators that could supply ISO NE with energy if needed. This means that in extreme weather events, blackouts due to a lack of energy sources would be less likely to occur in New England because its utility grid could receive energy from others.
The rolling blackouts that occurred in Texas were the result of an insufficient utility grid and energy market. However, something like this is unlikely to happen in another market like New England because its grid is weatherized, connected to other regional electricity grids, and it has a capacity market. Together these factors make this utility grid more reliable and resilient.
To learn more:
Bade, Gavin. “The Great Capacity Market Debate: Which Model Can Best Handle the Energy Transition?” Utility Dive, 18 Apr. 2017.
Blumsack, Seth. “Capacity Markets.” Capacity Markets | EME 801: Energy Markets, Policy, and Regulation, The Pennsylvania State University Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering.
England, ISO New. "Industry Standards, Structure, and Relationships" ISO New England Inc., 2021.
England, ISO New. Resource Mix ISO New England Inc., 2021.
USGCRP. “Fourth National Climate Assessment: Summary Findings.” NCA4, U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018.