By Tim McLaughlin and Stephanie Kelly
(Reuters) – As Texans cranked up their heaters early Monday to combat plunging temperatures, a record surge of electricity demand set off a disastrous chain reaction in the state’s power grid.
Wind turbines in the state’s northern Panhandle locked up. Natural gas plants shut down when frozen pipes and components shut off fuel flow. A South Texas nuclear reactor went dark after a five-foot section of uninsulated pipe seized up. Power outages quickly spread statewide – leaving millions shivering in their homes for days, with deadly consequences.
It could have been far worse: Before dawn on Monday, the state’s grid operator was “seconds and minutes” away from an uncontrolled blackout for its 26 million customers, its CEO has said. Such a collapse occurs when operators lose the ability to manage the crisis through rolling blackouts; in such cases, it can take weeks or months to fully restore power to customers.
Monday was one of the state’s coldest days in more than a century – but the unprecedented power crisis was hardly unpredictable after Texas had experienced a similar, though less severe, disruption during a 2011 cold snap. Still, Texas power producers failed to adequately winter-proof their systems. And the state’s grid operator underestimated its need for reserve power capacity before the crisis, then moved too slowly to tell utilities to institute rolling blackouts to protect against a grid meltdown, energy analysts, traders and economists said.
Early signs of trouble came long before the forced outages. Two days earlier, for example, the grid suddenly lost 539 megawatts (MW) of power, or enough electricity for nearly 108,000 homes, according to operational messages disclosed by the state’s primary grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
The crisis stemmed from a unique confluence of weaknesses in the state’s power system.
Texas is the only state in the continental United States with an independent and isolated grid. That allows the state to avoid federal regulation – but also severely limits its ability to draw emergency power from other grids. ERCOT also operates the only major U.S. grid that does not have a capacity market – a system that provides payments to operators to be on standby to supply power during severe weather events.
After more than 3 million ERCOT customers lost power in a February 2011 freeze, federal regulators recommended that ERCOT prepare for winter with the same urgency as it does the peak summer season. They also said that, while ERCOT’s reserve power capacity looked good on paper, it did not take into account that many generation units could get knocked offline by freezing weather.
“There were prior severe cold weather events in the Southwest in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2010,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp staff summarized after investigating the state’s 2011 rolling blackouts. “Extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation.”
ERCOT spokeswoman Leslie Sopko did not comment in detail about the causes of the power crisis but said the grid’s leadership plans to re-evaluate the assumptions that go into its forecasts.
The freeze was easy to see coming, said Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center.
“When I read that this was a black-swan event, I just have to wonder whether the folks who are saying that have been in this business long enough that they forgot everything, or just came into it,” Apt said. “People need to recognize that this sort of weather is pretty common.”
This week’s cold snap left 4.5 million ERCOT customers without power. More than 14.5 million Texans endured a related water-supply crisis as pipes froze and burst. About 65,000 customers remained without power as of Saturday afternoon, even as temperatures started to rise, according to website PowerOutage.US.
State health officials have linked more than two dozen deaths to the power crisis. Some died from hypothermia or possible carbon monoxide poisoning caused by portable generators running in basements and garages without enough ventilation. Officials say they suspect the death count will rise as more bodies are discovered.
THIN POWER RESERVE
In the central Texas city of Austin, the state capital, the minimum February temperature usually falls between 42 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 9 degrees Celsius). This past week, temperatures fell as low as 6 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 degrees Celsius).
In November, ERCOT assured that the grid was prepared to handle such a dire scenario.
“We studied a range of potential risks under both normal and extreme conditions, and believe there is sufficient generation to adequately serve our customers,” said ERCOT’s manager of resource adequacy, Pete Warnken, in a report that month.
Warnken could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Under normal winter conditions, ERCOT forecast it would have about 16,200 MW of power reserves. But under extreme conditions, it predicted a reserve cushion of only about 1,350 MW. That assumed only 23,500 MW of generation outages. During the peak of this week’s crisis, more than 30,000 MW was forced off the grid.
Other U.S. grid operators maintain a capacity market to supply extra power in extreme conditions – paying operators on an ongoing basis, whether they produce power or not. Capacity market auctions determine, three years in advance, the price that power generators receive in exchange for being on emergency standby.
Instead, ERCOT relies on a wholesale electricity market, where free market pricing provides incentives for generators to provide daily power and to make investments to ensure reliability in peak periods, according to economists. The system relied on the theory that power plants should make high profits when energy demand and prices soar – providing them ample money to make investments in, for example, winterization. The Texas legislature restructured the state’s electric market in 1999.
Since 2010, ERCOT’s reserve margin – the buffer between generation capacity versus forecasted demand – has dropped to about 10% from about 20%. This has put pressure on generators during demand spikes, making the grid less flexible, according to North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit regulator.
That thin margin for error set off alarms early Monday morning among energy traders and analysts as they watched a sudden drop in the electrical frequency of the Texas grid. One analyst compared it to watching the pulse of a hospital patient drop to life-threatening levels.
Too much of a drop is catastrophic because it would trigger automatic relay switches to disconnect power sources from the grid, setting off uncontrolled blackouts statewide. Dan Jones, an energy analyst at Monterey LLC, watched from his home office in Delaware as the grid’s frequency dropped quickly toward the point that would trigger the automatic shutdowns.
“If you’re not in control, and you are letting the equipment do it, that’s just chaos,” Jones said.
By Sunday afternoon about 3:15 p.m. (CST), ERCOT’s control room signaled it had run out of options to boost electric generation to match the soaring demand. Operators issued a warning that there was “no market solution” for the projected shortage, according to control room messages published by ERCOT on its website.
Adam Sinn, president of Houston-based energy trading firm Aspire Commodities, said ERCOT waited far too long to start telling utilities to cut customers’ power to guard against a grid meltdown. The problems, he said, were readily apparent several days before Monday.
“ERCOT was letting the system get weaker and weaker and weaker,” Sinn said in an interview. “I was thinking: Holy shit, what is this grid operator doing? He has to cut load.”
Sinn said he started texting his friends on Sunday night, warning them to expect widespread outages.
‘SECONDS AND MINUTES’
Early Monday morning, one of the largest sources of electricity in the state – the unit 1 reactor at the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station – stopped producing power after the small section of pipe froze in temperatures that averaged 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius). The grid lost access to 1,350 MW of nuclear power – enough to power about 270,000 homes – after automatic sensors detected the frozen pipe and protectively shut down the reactor, said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
About 2:30 a.m. (CST), the South Plains Electric Cooperative in Lubbock said it received a phone call from ERCOT to cut power to its customers. Inside the ERCOT control room, staff members scrambled to call utilities and cooperatives statewide to tell them to do the same, according to operational messages disclosed by the grid operator.
Three days later, ERCOT Chief Executive Bill Magness acknowledged that the grid operator had only narrowly avoided the calamity of uncontrolled blackouts.
“If we hadn’t taken action,” he said on Thursday, “it was seconds and minutes (away), given the amount of generation that was coming off the system at the same time that the demand was still going up.”
(Reporting by Tim McLaughlin and Stephanie Kelly; additional reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)
Digital health checks vital to travel recovery, Heathrow says
By Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) – Digital health checks will be vital to a recovery in foreign travel from the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s Heathrow airport said on Wednesday, after a collapse in passenger numbers saw it plunge to a 2 billion pound ($2.8 billion) loss last year.
The UK government said on Monday trips abroad could restart in mid-May as its vaccination campaign kicks in, sparking a surge in holiday bookings.
It is also looking into a digital health passport or app to help ease restrictions, while conceding the benefits have to be weighed against potential risks to civil liberties.
But Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said digital technology, and international agreements, would be vital to reviving a travel industry on its knees.
“It’s absolutely critical and that’s one of the main things that government needs to work on,” he said, when asked about a digital health app.
At present, paper checks on COVID-19 test results and passenger locator forms take 20 minutes per traveller at Heathrow, making travel near impossible should passenger numbers rise from current low levels.
Britain’s biggest airport said it was “very likely” people would be able to go on their summer holidays, but expects passenger numbers will take time to recover.
The airport, west of London, is forecasting 25 million passengers in the second half of the year, meaning it would be operating at about 50% capacity.
Heathrow, owned by Spain’s Ferrovial, the Qatar Investment Authority, China Investment Corp and others, last year lost its title as Europe’s busiest airport to Paris after its flight schedules shrank more than those of its rivals.
Passenger numbers plunged 73% to 22 million people last year, with half of those travelling during January and February, before the pandemic shut down global travel in March.
Heathrow said it had 3.9 billion pounds of liquidity, giving it sufficient resources to keep going with low levels of traffic until 2023, despite the 2 billion loss before tax for 2020.
The airport urged the government to provide business tax breaks for big airports, something only available to smaller airports so far, and to extend the furlough job support scheme to help it financially before the recovery takes off.
($1 = 0.7044 pounds)
(Reporting by Sarah Young. Editing by James Davey and Mark Potter)
Britain’s Heathrow sinks to $2.8 billion loss during pandemic
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Heathrow Airport plunged to a 2 billion pound ($2.8 billion) annual loss after passenger numbers collapsed to levels last seen in the 1970s during the pandemic.
Heathrow called on the government to agree a common international travel standard to allow passengers to start flying again in the summer and to provide business tax breaks for airports to help them ride out the crisis.
The airport, west of London, is hopeful that travel markets will reopen from mid-May after a government announcement on easing lockdown on Monday.
Still Britain’s biggest airport, Heathrow last year lost its title as the busiest in Europe to Paris as its flight schedules contracted more than its rival’s.
The airport said on Wednesday that during 2020 passenger numbers shrunk 73% to 22 million people, with half of those people having travelled during January and February before COVID-19 shut down global travel.
The airport sunk to a 2 billion loss before tax on revenues which were down 62% to 1.18 billion pounds, but Heathrow said it had 3.9 billion pounds of liquidity and that could keep it going until 2023.
The airport is owned by Spain’s Ferrovial, the Qatar Investment Authority and China Investment Corp, among others.
($1 = 0.7044 pounds)
(Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Kate Holton and James Davey)
Strong exports, construction boost German economy in fourth quarter
BERLIN (Reuters) – Bullish exports and solid construction activity helped the German economy to grow by a stronger-than-expected 0.3% in the final quarter of last year, the Federal Statistics Office said on Wednesday, revising an earlier estimate.
The office, which previously had reported a 0.1% expansion on the quarter from October to December, said it also revised upward its 2020 full-year GDP figure for Europe’s largest economy to -4.9% from -5.0%.
Adjusted for calendar effects, the economy last year shrank by 5.3%, which was a much smaller contraction than many other European countries recorded, mainly due to a strong fiscal response of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The debt-financed fiscal splurge created an overall state budget deficit of 139.6 billion euros or 4.2% of gross domestic product in 2020, the office said. This was the first deficit since 2011 and the second-highest since German reunification.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Maria Sheahan)
Stronger pound dents FTSE 100; Lloyds rises
By Shivani Kumaresan (Reuters) – Britain’s main stock index fell on Wednesday as a stronger pound weighed on exporters, while...
Digital health checks vital to travel recovery, Heathrow says
By Sarah Young LONDON (Reuters) – Digital health checks will be vital to a recovery in foreign travel from the...
Sterling rises past $1.42, hits highest vs euro in a year
By Ritvik Carvalho LONDON (Reuters) – Sterling jumped above $1.42 on Wednesday, coming within touching distance of $1.43, while also...
Top Toshiba shareholder renews call for probe over AGM vote
By Makiko Yamazaki TOKYO (Reuters) – Toshiba Corp’s top investor has renewed its call for an independent investigation into the...
European shares strengthen, but tech stocks under pressure
LONDON (Reuters) – European shares opened generally higher on Wednesday but world shares remained in the red after a weak...
BBVA may cut 3,000 jobs in Spain, Expansion says
MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s BBVA is considering cutting around 3,000 jobs in its home market, or around 10% of its...
Former BOJ executive calls for ‘genuine’ review of central bank stimulus
By Leika Kihara and Takahiko Wada TOKYO (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan must abandon the view it can influence...
Britain’s Heathrow sinks to $2.8 billion loss during pandemic
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Heathrow Airport plunged to a 2 billion pound ($2.8 billion) annual loss after passenger numbers collapsed...
Puma forecasts strong rebound from end of second quarter
BERLIN (Reuters) – German sportswear company Puma said on Wednesday it expects a heavy impact on its results from lockdowns...
Vodafone’s Vantage Towers announces intention to float
LONDON (Reuters) – Vantage Towers, the mobile infrastructure company spun out of Vodafone Group, on Wednesday announced its intention to...