WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ENERGY CAPITAL?

February 18, 2021 § 10 Comments

Texas prides itself on being the energy capital. The capital (as opposed to the Capitol of the infamous January 6 insurrection) is under siege.  Nature is asserting its might. Unpreparedness sure helps. 

Few know that Texas has its own grid.  The country is divided into three grids: The Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and drum roll here, Texas.  Conspiracy theorists may connect this to secessionist tendencies.  Certainly, recent utterances attributed to the former governor Rick Perry don’t help.  He is quoted as saying, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,”.  He is referring to the fact that because the Texas grid does not conduct interstate commerce, it is not governed by the rules of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  This from a guy who just a month ago held federal office as the US Secretary of Energy.  

In a Fox channel interview Governor Abbott of Texas blamed solar and wind for the problem.  Small problem: solar is just 1 – 3% of the total and wind is around 20%.  Then his own folks at ERCOT, which stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas (the reliability in the name is ironic) said it was primarily due to natural gas supply drop.  This makes more sense because gas generators comprise 47% of the electricity produced.  Abbott later walked back the claims and said he meant that renewables could not be the dominant source.  Tell that to Germany, which gets 40% from renewables.  Then Congresswoman AOC trolled Abbott by Tweeting that Texas electricity was 80 – 90% from fossil fuel.  That is not accurate either (coal plus gas come in at about 65%, according to ERCOT).  Just when you think the election silly season is over, you have politicians using their favorite political points scoring issue whenever there is a remote opening for it.

By all accounts, every source of electricity was hampered by the extreme cold, even the nuclear plants.  But, according to the ERCOT leadership, the biggest culprit was natural gas.  Delivered natural gas nearly halved at the most severe stages due to frozen lines.  We know that methane (the dominant component of natural gas) does not freeze till a frigid -182 C.  So, why are natural gas pipelines (these are the main supply lines, not the little ones going to your house) freezing?

I was not able to find any explanation, so I am going to hazard a hypothesis based on other oilfield knowledge.  Almost all supplies of natural gas will be water wet to some degree.  If films of water form, at pipeline pressures of 800 psi or so, temperatures approaching water freezing can cause hydrate crystals to nucleate on the walls.  Again, with the right conditions, these could grow to plug the line.  This routinely happens in undersea gas pipelines.  Those pipelines have a device known as a “pig” which can be made to traverse the line and mechanically clear out the growing crystals.  The other means is to drizzle in methanol, which lowers the freezing point; basically an antifreeze such as ethylene glycol in your car radiator (which too can be used in this application).

Gas hydrates are large crystals of ice with methane in the interstices.  The overall crystal structure looks like a soccer ball.  Richard Smalley, who co-discovered this structure in carbon (a sixty-atom molecule version), got the Nobel Prize for it, in part because finding a brand-new crystal structure of a common element is rare, and in part because carbon in this form has proven to have compelling value in the form of nano materials.  Gas hydrates in the subsurface were once believed to be the next big thing in natural gas sourcing because they are ubiquitous and, according to the US Geological Survey, the total resource exceeds all other carbonaceous fuels combined.  Some probably still are believers.  In my opinion plentiful shale gas has shot down those dreams.  Gas hydrates are also a neat party trick. Take a block of it in a shallow bowl and the seemingly innocuous ice will light up with a match. 

We can conclude from all that we have seen in Texas that industry, especially a loosely regulated one, operates on probabilities.   ERCOT modeling probably predicted such freezes to be infrequent and more geographically scattered, allowing the management with a minimum of disruption.  Not the way it turned out.  Last year a high proportion of the devastating wildfires in California were known to have been triggered by downed power lines.  A cost-effective solution is yet to be identified.  The Lone Star is not alone after all.

Vikram Rao

February 18, 2021

§ 10 Responses to WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ENERGY CAPITAL?

  • abe says:

    I did not know that hydrate was so nicely handled and can burn in one’s hand? My perception/misinformation was that gas hydrate can cause a serious explosion due to rapid expansion as in gas hydrate huge amounts of methane is stored in relatively small volume?

  • rtecrtp says:

    It can indeed be stored in a very small volume (a concentration of about 162 times free gas). It was seriously considered as an ocean transport medium instead of LNG.
    But I have removed that sentence you mention in case someone is tempted to try it! Many images of this trick are available in (gloved) hands, but I removed the sentence anyway.

  • Robert Pinschmidt says:

    So why was gas hydrate dropped as a storage medium? Just because it’s a solid?

    • Abe says:

      gas hydrate was dropped as a form of storage because the behaviour of the solid-gas to gas transition was not predictable or easily controllable. often causing more problems than potential benefits. Japanese scientists have been working for the longest on the subject and no major breakthrough as to how the gas hydrates can be effectively managed explored produced transported or stored.

  • Steven G. Hall says:

    Thanks Vik:
    A lot of good learning – Texas as the third grid; (implied challenges of being “too autonomous”); possible technical solutions (good old insulation would help, and not break the budget, a likely update over the coming couple of years); and glad you pointed out other zones (e.g. California) have their own energy challenges – and these guys (TX, CA) are the “rich guys”; Louisiana has challenges with hurricanes, flooding, and fewer total resources to address issues (with occasional impact on the eastern grid). Most importantly, this is a learning opportunity for Texas, and if we are wise, for the rest of us too. Thanks again.

  • rtecrtp says:

    Agree with Abe especially on the exploration and production. Also, for oceanic transport the 162 x concentration was not deemed good enough compared to the 600 x or so from LNG. British Gas pushed but did not prevail.

  • Rob Fulks says:

    Vik, another great article. The gas hydrate issue which you describe is something I had not considered. Thanks again for your insightful commentary. Hope you are staying warm and safe.

  • rtecrtp says:

    Thanks, Rob. The science is right and I know this can happen. Whether that is indeed what happened, I do not know.

  • Mark Bahner says:

    Hi,

    Happy 2021, everyone. 🙂

    It boggles my mind that this problem can’t be fairly easily and inexpensively addressed. To me, this is very similar to the problem of hurricane storm surge or wildfires. (Although this problem seems much easier/less expensive to deal with.) What seems to be obviously needed is a need to fundamentally understand the problem and be able to think outside the box.

    I’m thinking of some “outside-the-box” solutions right now, but I’m not sure I fundamentally understand the problem. (I think I do, but I’m not sure.)

    My outside-the-box solutions potentially have intellectual property value (which I’m not particularly interested in, but any partners with me are welcome to pursue that avenue).

    Anyone who is interested in working with me on this problem and potential outside-the-box solutions, please contact me. My email address is my last name and first name (all one word) at Gmail.

    Best wishes,
    Mark Bahner

  • Mark Bahner says:

    Hi,

    Here’s some information I’ve gathered from my research into this event. I’m responding to comments made over at another website, so the information is focused on February 17th, even though the real problems started in the early morning (1-5 AM) on February 15th.

    Regarding wind power:

    Average wind power on February 17th: 2,579 MW
    Average wind power in January 2021: 10,352 MW
    Average wind power in February 2020: 10,341 MW

    So there was approximately a 75 percent reduction in wind power on February 17th, 2021 versus the average wind power in the month of January in 2021 or the average wind power in the month of February in 2020.

    Beyond the percentage reduction of 75 percent, there is the more important aspect of the absolute MW reduction. The absolute MW reduction is approximately 10,350 minus 2,579 = 7,771 MW.

    That’s the key. That lost 7,771 MW would need to be made up by coal, nuclear, and natural gas. And the problem is that every single one of those sources of electrical generation was under-performing (with respect to their capacities) on February 17th.

    Nuclear had one of four reactors down. So that was another ~1300 MW that was missing when it was needed most.

    Coal production on February 17th averaged only 7,333 MW, even though coal production averaged over February 2020 was 9,144 MW…and coal summer capacity in ERCOT is a whopping 14,408 MW.

    And natural gas production, which had performed admirably up to February 15th, had also collapsed by February 17th, generating an average of only 29,975 MW that day. That’s much lower than the average of 37,472 MW generated on February 14th. And it’s much, much lower than the summer capacity of natural gas plants in ERCOT, which stand at: 31,653 MW for natural gas combined cycle plants; 6,085 MW for natural gas turbine plants; and 11,158 MW for natural gas steam turbine plants…representing a total capacity for all natural gas plants of 49,817 MW.

    So when Texas needed 65,000 to 70,000 MW of electrical power from roughly 3 AM on February 15th to midnight on February 16th, their supply was approximately 20,000 to 25,000 MW short(!!!), due to under-performance of all fuel types…wind, nuclear, coal, and natural gas. But natural gas was especially important because it’s such a big portion of the Texas electrical supply in winter high-demand situations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ENERGY CAPITAL? at Research Triangle Energy Consortium.

meta