By Don Corrigan
The worst polar vortex event of the winter has faded quickly for St. Louis residents. The memory of the bitter cold and snow storm have melted away. Not so in Texas, where electrical outages, burst pipes and critical equipment failures continue to plague the Lone Star State.
Texas towns suffered weather-related fatalities and millions of dollars in damage from one of the costliest weather disasters in U.S. history. Could the St. Louis area and Midwest suffer a similar fate in a brutal winter storm and extended cold snap?
Mark Petty, Kirkwood Electric Director, who said his job “is to keep the lights on,” does not foresee any such utility catastrophe for his suburban city. Kirkwood is the only municipality in the St. Louis region with its own electric department.
Kirkwood officials say local control of electric distribution means better service and more accountability. It also means more flexibility in “wheeling” electricity from other states when frigid conditions might cause instrumentation failures in coal, nuclear and gas-fired power plants closer to home.
“Kirkwood Electric is in a very large grid that helps in these types of situations,” said Petty. “Our grid monitors electrical generation and what’s available to protect as much as possible against outages and to avoid rolling blackouts.”
“The size of our grid helps to provide more protection versus what would be available in a smaller area or single state,” Petty said. “Our grid covers many more states and we have many more source options.”
Critics of Texas utilities say its electrical grid was isolated as an independent, one-state system. Failure to winterize equipment to save money, as well as deregulation of energy sources, also are being blamed for hardship, failure and deaths.
Texas deregulation is now triggering lawsuits by citizens trapped without heat for days in freezing homes. In desperate attempts to keep warm, fatal house fires were sparked in suburbs where fireplaces were fed anything that would burn for heat.
Power plants were unable to supply needed electricity for heat because instruments controlling energy were compromised. This is ringing alarms now, particularly in the case of nuclear power plants where working equipment is critical for safety.
Petty said electrical systems and homeowners themselves need to “winterize” in preparation for extreme cold. For homeowners that means having emergency supplies, appropriate insulation in attics and insulating water pipes in walls.
“For us, winterizing means investing in components that are designed to continue to operate in extreme weather,” said Petty. “As per accusations that Texas utilities did not spend the additional money to purchase needed components, investigations of their situation will help us learn if that is actually true.
“With regard to Kirkwood Electric, winterizing applies to the components associated with the electricity delivery system,” Petty explained. “We do purchase the equipment that is specified to operate in extreme temperatures.”
Blame Green New Deal?
Some Texas politicians blamed electrical failures on the Green New Deal in Congress and unreliable renewable energy sources. However, state utility experts slapped those charges down quickly.
Utility experts noted that wind turbines and solar power sources actually proved more reliable. Also, the Green New Deal proposal has yet to be legislated and approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.
“The new Green Deal and renewable energy had nothing to do with this crisis in Texas,” said Petty. “And the injection of the more than 450 MW (megawatts) from the Greenbelt Express project will add more reliability to not only Kirkwood, but all the other customers served in the entire grid area.”
The Grainbelt Express is a transmission line through northern Missouri designed to deliver wind energy from western states. The state legislature has opposed the line and a vocal opponent of the line is Rep. Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres.
Plocher, now House Majority Leader in Missouri, argues along with other Republicans that the Greenbelt line is an abuse of eminent domain violating land rights of farmers. The line is eagerly anticipated by city utilities in Hannibal, Springfield and Kirkwood.
Kirkwood’s Petty said he is troubled by natural gas deregulation by Texas lawmakers. He said that without regulation, profit-taking harmed residents in a major crisis.
“Those gas prices were allowed to reach 100 times normal level,” said Petty. “Some electric generators could not afford or could not cover the gas transactions necessary to operate.
“In the future, consideration should be given to the suspension of gas price escalation during these types of emergencies,” stressed Petty. “As the investigation continues, I’d love to know just how much gas generation sat on the sidelines because they could not afford to operate.”
Petty said this February’s weather extremes should be a wake-up call for utilities and energy regulators to prepare for the worst and to act in the public interest. He said other areas of the country have an advantage over Texas.
“The Texas grid is governed by its state legislature and their focus is associated with that state,” said Petty. “The other grid systems are governed and managed by licensed utility professionals experienced in operations and maintenance.
“When regulatory rules and regulations are based on generation and transmission best practices – associated with the delivery of power in multi-state regions – reliability is a priority,” said Petty. “And adult conversations take place with regard to the financial requirements for the reliability of that entire region.”
Adult conversations on maintaining infrastructure reliability are essential as climate change brings on more extreme weather. Such weather will test the endurance of vital life support systems, including electrical power generation and distribution.