2021 has been a year of many things, one of them being extreme weather. When you sit back and think about it, there have been extreme weather incidents all over the country for many years, and we’ve come to expect something with these – power outages. Why do we expect them? And why do they even happen? Let’s take a closer look at what happens to the power grid during some of these incidents.
The Great Texas Power Outage of 2021
The Texas incident in 2021 is really a unique case – after all, Texas is not exactly known for its freezing temperatures. However, freeze it did, and with it bringing massive power outage and large amounts of people without power across the state.
Because Texas isn’t used to freezing, things are a bit different there, especially when it comes to power. Texas uses quite a great deal of wind power, and wind turbines simply froze and didn’t work. Along with that came issues with the natural gas power plants. If you’re from someplace that’s used to freezing weather, you know what an issue it can be if your water pipes freeze. The cold also impacted natural gas plants by freezing supply lines, rendering them basically useless.
If you don’t know much about the power capabilities of Texas, let me give you a quick lesson. First of all, Texas is abundant in one natural resource, which is oil. Oil is refined and used in natural gas power plants. Since Texas has this in abundance, they are unique in the sense that they generate much of their own power, and are mostly an isolated power grid, versus buying power from neighboring states like many other states do.
Coupled with the generation issues were an increased usage because you guessed it, it was cold out. If you’ve ever used an electric heater, you know they have a big impact on your energy bill. This increased demand and lack of generation created the perfect storm, excuse the pun.
Generation and Supply Issues Are Common
This massive outage in Texas was a great way to showcase all of the different things that can go wrong during a storm. The demand for power increased, and the output decreased, which of course, we all know won’t end well. Modern power systems have a number of fail safes built into them. For example, if power generating devices and distribution devices cannot keep up with their requests, they will simply shut down. Power is one of those tricky things, and it generally involves quite a bit of heat, which we all know from our time in the the data center can be a very disruptive force.
Energy providers were forced to attempt to get ahead of this, and actually turned off distribution selectively. This is called a rolling blackout. This selectively turns off portions of the grid, so that the energy draw will decrease and the rest of the grid will be able to continue operating instead of shutting down. The rolling part is that these portions of the grid are cycled through. After a determined period of time, a new section of the grid will be turned off, so that the part that was off can come back on.
There are many different thoughts out there on why things happened the way they did, especially since this isn’t the first time Texas has seen major cold weather induced power outages. The fact of the matter is is that power generation companies performed activities that we’re all used to when they decided what steps should be taken to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
They likely started with a business impact analysis. What would be the cost and impact of a major power outage due to severe weather? Based on that outcome, they likely decided how much they would invest (or would not invest) to mitigate the extreme weather risk. This was the basis of the operational plans that were in place.
When the cold weather actually hit, and the implemented controls failed, it quickly turned into what we in the IT world recognize as a disaster recovery exercise. How could they mitigate the damage as much as possible, and bring systems online as quickly as possible. Because of the nature of this event, there was another layer of ensuring things didn’t get worse and more services were not lost.
Power Outages and preparedness
While what happened in Texas was an extreme case, the basics apply when we see power outages during other storms in events. When power distribution or generating equipment is damaged, there are issues supplying power to homes and businesses. These can of course be damaged by storms. When events that create more demand for power happen, whether it be extreme heat or extreme cold, both power distribution and generation systems need to be able to keep up with the extreme load, or fail safe mechanisms will kick in, leading to disruption of service. Likewise, outages may manually be triggered by power companies to try to lessen the load across a grid so more cascading failures do not happen.
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