In February 2021, a massive winter storm plunged the Texas region into a virtual snow globe. Not only was the state unprepared to remove the snow that blocked roads and access, but the grid supplying Texan’s with critical electricity couldn’t handle it either.
In the days and weeks that followed, millions of people wanted to know who was to blame for the massive outages that have been attributed to 111 deaths.
It turns out, the ‘who’ was the simple question. And the simple solution.
After stripping away the many layers of blame shifting, the ‘how’ behind the blackout is much more concerning: The grid was physically incapable of keeping up with the demand for power, even if the entire grid remained online. There just wasn’t enough power to satisfy the demand.
As the temperature dropped on February 14th, Texans began turning on their heat, which was mostly electric. With so many homes trying to stay warm, a record-shattering demand spike was seen to the tune of 74.5 gigawatts.
In comparison, normal Texas grid operation is roughly 58 gigawatts, statewide. To prepare for temporary surges in demand, the Texas grid can increase their supply to a maximum of 67 gigawatts.
In other words, the demand for electricity was almost 8 gigawatts over what could be supplied under any circumstances. Even in emergencies.
The unavoidable truth is that even if Texas’ electric generation capacity stayed 100% online during the storm, there still would have been blackouts. The grid just couldn't keep up with the power demands placed on it by the population.
By time the storm had passed, 14 U.S. States were forced to establish rolling blackouts to cover the electric shortage. Even outside of Texas, there just wasn't enough power to go around.
This is not a new phenomenon, either.
In fact, electrical systems engineers and industry experts have been issuing reports for years that all say the same thing: without a staggering shift in upgrades and spending, outages will only increase in frequency and duration. Placing millions of people at risk every time the grid goes down.
And they unanimously agree that no section of the grid is “safe” from longer, and more frequent, outages. Nationwide.
Why is the grid struggling? And what can we do to protect our homes and businesses from the inevitable threats that follow power outages?
Our electric grid is like a house of cards
When operating under ideal conditions, the U.S. electric grid is a deeply complex interconnected system of power generation plants, transformers and some 6 million miles of wires.
Using sensors, switching gear, and control centers, the grid can reroute power if small sections go black because of storms, accidents, or even repair work. Most of the time, people don’t even realize that something has rerouted their power because the transitions are near-seamless.
At least, that’s how the grid works under perfect conditions.
In August 2003, a transmission cable in Ohio heated from above-normal power demands, causing the cable to become flexible and sag. The sagging cable touched a tree, which caused a power failure. When that section went dark, nearby sections of the grid attempted to pick up the extra burden as designed to keep the lights on.
Only those sections were already under a substantial load of their own from consumer demand and could not handle the increase. They, too, went down.
Over the next few hours, a cascading series of demand shifts continued to take down sections of the grid in a snowball effect, until over 50 million people across 8 U.S. states and parts of Canada were without power.
The 2003 Northeast Blackout, as it was termed, took weeks to restore the entire grid to 100% functionality, contributed to 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion in lost production and damages.
Despite the grid operating exactly as designed, the power demand was simply too great to manage.
An aging grid over capacity… and the demand just keeps going up
In their 2017 Infrastructure Report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US electric grid a D+. The shocking report stated: “much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 20th century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy...the lower 48 states’ power grid is at full capacity, with many lines operating well beyond their design.”
In shorter terms, they designed much of the grid to only last 50 years before replacement. And it was installed 70 years ago when the average home and business used a fraction of the power they do now.
And the well-intentioned adoption of electric vehicles and home charging stations may dramatically balloon the demand for electricity past the point of sustainability.
According to new research from energy systems engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), just one or two electric vehicles on one block may overload nearby transformers past their operating capacity. Transformers that may have operated for 30-40 years will probably need to be replaced in less than 10, which exponentially increases the cost of just maintaining the grid.
For comparison, the current king of home electric use, a central air conditioner, uses roughly 7kW of power to cool a large 3,500 square foot home during the height of summer. The charger necessary to keep a single electric car ready for everyday use, on the other hand, can demand a staggering 22kw while charging. Put another way, that single charger is the power equivalent of three large central air units cooling a combined 10,500 square feet of living space.
So add the demands of new transformers to the projected $197 billion investment gap by 2029, and it gets a lot clearer why the DOE’s Grid Modernization Multi-Year Program plan, said that electric utilities will need to spend between $1.5 and $2 trillion from 2010 to 2030, just to maintain reliability of the existing grid.
All told, from 2008-2017, there was an average of 3,188 blackouts per year, plunging an average of 21.96 million people per year, into the dark.
That is a whole lot of blackouts you may not have heard about until right now.
So if the grid is really this strained, and they forecast electricity demand to dramatically increase with electric vehicles, what can we do to protect our homes and families during an emergency?
Managing the inevitable outages with comfort and security
Statistically, most of the documented outages when demand outstripped supply occurred during more extreme weather events. Realistically, when it is very hot or very cold, people will be calling on more electricity to maintain a comfortable, and safe, temperature.
Logically, that also means we should be doubly concerned about these types of outage events since losing power during severe weather also means losing the ability to keep our homes at safe temperatures, with running water and safe food storage.
If the problem is the grid letting us down, then the clear preparation alternative is to generate your own electricity to keep your lights on.
Let’s look at two ways to do that.
Solar power is a fantastic alternative to grid power, and also has the potential to generate electricity year round, not just during an outage. As long as the sun is up and shining, you will have electricity and a lower utility bill.
There is one critical aspect of a solar array that is absolutely necessary to run your solar during a grid outage: a battery bank.
The reason is a federal mandate called “anti-islanding”, which was instituted to protect utility workers during power outages. Essentially, all solar systems installed in the U.S. are required to stop generating electricity in the event the grid goes down. The reason is simple: if the grid is down, then utility workers can safely fix the problem without being electrocuted. But if you have a grid-connected solar array, then your panels can still feed the grid and potentially electrocute utility workers anywhere in your vicinity. Anti-islanding prevents that risk.
The solution to this mandate is a hybrid grid-tie system that has a battery bank attached to it. During an outage, the solar array feeds power into the batteries, which are used to power loads in the home, all isolated from the grid by a transfer switch.
The downside to this concept is that the battery banks are very large, expensive, and could need to be replaced in as little as five years.
Standby Whole House Generator
Outside of solar arrays, the best bang for the buck option that can be installed in the shortest period is the standby whole house generator.
These generators are permanently installed next to your home and look just like a central air conditioning unit. When the power goes out, or even “browns-out”, the generator will automatically turn on and take over the power supply to your house. Even if no one is home.
The obvious upside to this option is a total backup replacement of your power supply without sacrificing any comforts. Even on the hottest days or coldest nights, your generator will continue powering the critical items that keep your family safe and comfortable. To top it all off, natural gas-powered generators mean no refueling in the middle of the night, or needing to be home for the power to stay on. It just works.
And choosing a meticulously-designed generator, like the Cummins QuietConnect, also means no loud shrieking motors or failures at the moment of truth. Just smooth, confident electricity that is entirely inside your control.
Keeping your lights on is a choice you can make
All of this may be very concerning, since electricity is one of those things that we just can’t imagine life without. And many of us have seen what happens when the power goes out for an extended period in severe weather: it doesn’t take long before things get ugly.
In time, the hope is that newer technology will be developed to cope with the ever-increasing demand placed on the grid. Or they will dramatically increase infrastructure spending to make up the shortfall of system-lifespan and eventual replacement. Regardless of how that solution presents itself, however, there is little doubt that the problem exists right now.
The good news is we don’t have to wait for someone else to fix our problems for us, and we certainly don’t have to wait for bad times to strike before we take steps to prevent it.
Every family can start taking steps now to prepare for an outage later. Stocking up on warm clothes for winter outages, or bottled water for summer outages. Keeping a supply of non-perishable food on hand, or learning how to capture rainfall for the really long outages.
Or, for the family that wants to ironclad their outage plan, consider finding your nearest Cummins dealer and scheduling a painless home assessment. In just a few minutes you can know exactly how little the ultimate peace of mind can cost and even explore financing options from Synchrony Bank.
Then, the next time the grid lets you down, regardless of the weather or demand, your family will still be safe and comfortable.