Consumers may return to normal usage of electricity after a week that stressed the grid — and Texans’ anxieties. The ERCOT website said: “There is enough power for current demand,” and an ERCOT spokesperson confirmed the power conservation notice expired at 7 p.m. Friday.
On Monday, the state’s grid operator warned that an unusual amount of power generation, primarily from natural gas-fired power plants, had gone offline at the same time as weather patterns produced little wind for turbines. For five days, ERCOT warned that the supply of power was running low as Texans increased their demand for electricity in hotter weather, and asked the public to reduce electricity use.
Approximately 12,000 megawatts of generation were offline Monday, or enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day. The majority of the offline generation was unexpected, the grid operator said, meaning something at a power plant malfunctioned or broke, and the plant was forced to partially or totally shut down.
The amount of generation that was down earlier in the week was several times what ERCOT typically expects for this time of year; Texas power plants are typically built to perform well during the summer heat. And, wind turbines were not generating as much power as the grid operators anticipated for the summer season. The combination of the two resulted in what ERCOT called “tight” grid conditions.
ERCOT officials could not provide details as to why so much generation was offline. At the same time, Texans used a record amount of electricity for early June. Power grids must keep supply and demand in balance at all times, which is why the grid operator asked consumers to cut back usage — the first of several emergency steps ERCOT takes to prevent customer outages.
In an interview earlier this week, Joshua Rhodes, a research associate with the University of Texas at Austin and Webber Energy Group, shared his reaction to ERCOT’s alert, which issued since February’s deadly winter storms.
“To see it happening while temperatures are a little bit lower than they normally are is a bit concerning, but given how many power plants are offline, it makes sense,” Rhodes said, “but I mean it’s something we’ve got to figure out. If anything we know, the summer’s only going to get hotter.”
Impatience with ERCOT has run high since February’s storm, when mass outages left millions of Texans in the dark and cold for days under single digit temperatures. ERCOT’s handling — or mishandling — of the crisis came to be near-universally acknowledged as a failure. This judgment resulted in resignations from several board members and the termination of President and CEO Bill Magness.
Additionally, both the Texas House and Senate held hearings to determine the extent of the council’s preparation for the storms.
Friday was also the day state regulators said they would begin lifting the utility moratorium, which means utility companies can begin to send customers disconnection notices. Disconnections can resume June 29 at the earliest.
Portions of this article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Author: Russell Falcon
This post originally appeared on KXAN Austin
We in medicine are generally aware of how important electric devices are — and were — to understanding the function of the heart and brain.
Thanks primarily to work by physicists who sought to tame electricity by distilling it down to a handful of equations and parameters, clinicians have been tinkering with electrical devices for well over 100 years. And they’re now used in an array of technologies, from pacemakers to deep brain stimulators to transcutaneous nerve stimulators, to treat pain.
But there’s another side to this story originating in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when tinkerers, called “electricians”, were utilizing electricity with no idea how it worked. Their experiments depended as much on identifying innate biological sources of electricity as they did on harnessing its outside sources for potential medical applications.
“Even in the field of bioelectronic medicine, in which we make use of the physics of electromagnetism, the biophysics of neurostimulation, and the principles behind merging the two phenomena, we often forget how the study of biological and nonbiological electricity emerged together,” notes Stavros Zanos, MD, PhD, assistant professor and head of the Translational Neurophysiology Lab at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York. “Looking back to the 18th century, the time of Franklin and Cavendish, researchers were literally shocking themselves with Leyden jars and electric fish, out of sheer curiosity, little aware that they were laying the foundation for our understanding neurological, muscular, and cardiovascular electrophysiology, and for so much of the technology on which physiology and medicine depend.”
There are exceptions to this characterization of 18th-century research. Signs of their influence can still be seen today in Bologna, Italy, where a statue of the physician and all around polymath Luigi Aloisio Galvani (1737-1798) looks out over the piazza named in his honor, and to the northwest, at the University of Pavia, where Galvani’s archrival, physicist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), also stands proudly carved in stone. Hundreds of years on, many in northern Italy can take you through the abbreviated highlights of these two men’s work: Galvani harnessing electricity to make frog legs twitch; his disagreement with Volta causing the latter to invent the battery; and Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834), adapting that battery design into something bigger and more powerful in order to electrify dead people, thereby immortalizing himself as the historical inspiration for Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) novel Frankenstein.
For many Italians, the fame of these experiments rivals that of those conducted here in America by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), with his iconic kite in a thunderstorm. In fact, as explained by physicist Jim Al-Khalili in his 2011 BBC documentary “Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity” — and is likely equally apparent to any emergency physician who’s managed lightning injuries — it’s doubtful Franklin’s story ever happened. It’s much more likely that the proof that lightning was electric came from a safer experiment conducted in the French town of Marly-la-Ville in 1752, while Galvani and Volta were just children, involving a tall metal pole, which no one made the mistake to be caught holding during the decisive strike. This lightning experiment galvanized (pun intended) Franklin’s concept of positive and negative charge, a major insight in the discussions of electricity leading to the Galvani–Volta rivalry later in the century.
Statue of Luigi Galvani in his eponymous piazza in Bologna.
To get a local perspective on the legacy of Galvani and Volta, I spoke with Matteo Cerri, MD, PhD, professor of physiology and researcher on the neuroscience of hibernation at Bologna University, where Galvani also spent his career. Chatting from nearby Galvani’s statue, Cerri noted how, at first glance, his image appears to be staring downward at a book, but closer examination shows that it’s a frog on a dissecting plate that draws his gaze. It’s a fitting scene, as it also proved the initial dividing line in the researchers’ philosophical feud.
As a physician and anatomy professor, Galvani was fascinated by electricity, which researchers of his era had attempted to harness to treat a patient who was paralyzed. Treatment entailed imparting to the patient a shock from static electricity, then the only type of electricity that 18th-century electricians knew how to generate. They did so using hand-cranked devices that rotated glass globes against woolen cloth, the same principle that generates carpet shocks from your shoes, but more efficiently.
Not only could cranking the globe build up a much higher charge than even the shaggiest carpet, it could be delivered through a wire to people or objects, causing a spark, or to a Leyden jar, a crude capacitor invented by Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) in the 1740s, which could store a charge for hours to days.
Print of an early Leyden jar.
Although most 18th-century electricians squandered the mysterious force for party tricks, like making people’s hair stand up or igniting a glass of cognac, the attempt to utilize sparks as therapy for paralysis proved inspirational to Galvani. He set about conducting experiments where he would dissect out the femoral nerves of freshly sacrificed frogs and shock them with a wire connected to one of the spinning static electricity generators, causing the leg muscles to twitch.
In Galvani’s mind, the electricity from the machine was not moving through the frog, but rather was emanating from the brain, through the nerves and muscles, causing them to contract. Galvani believed this to be a spiritual force, which therefore could not be manufactured by humans. This was Galvani’s religious take on “animal electricity”, a hypothesis that biology could produce electricity, a different type of electricity from what humans could generate and store in Leyden jars.
Lightning in a Bottle
As van Musschenbroek had learned the hard way, a Leyden jar could impart a rather uncomfortable shock if it was held in somebody’s hand while being charged, and then the wire coming out of the top was touched by that person’s other hand. In contrast was the torpedo fish (Torpedo marmorata), a creature whose bite felt strangely similar to a shock from a Leyden jar. Today, it’s known commonly as the marbled electric ray, but some 18th-century thinkers doubted that it was electric at all, because, unlike Leyden jars, the sting of T.marmorata did not cause a spark.
Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) of England tested Leyden jars of varying sizes and worked out that a shock could be characterized by the “degree of electrification” and by an independent parameter he called the “quantity of electricity”. Inspired by the internal anatomy of the fish that featured a series of chambers, Cavendish built a kind of torpedo fish simulator: several Leyden jars, linked together to hold a high “quantity of electricity”, because of the high number of jars, while keeping the “degree of electrification” low by charging the jars to just a fraction of their capacity. When touched, the device produced a strong shock, but with a spark visible only through a magnifying glass, leading Cavendish to conclude that the real fish did indeed produce electricity. He distinguished this from the standard Leyden jar in that the fish produced a higher “quantity of electricity” with a much lower “degree of electrification”. In today’s terminology, Cavendish meant that Leyden jars delivered low charge and high voltage, while T.marmorata delivered high charge and low voltage.
The Birth of an Electric Rivalry
Cavendish’s insight occurred in the mid-1770s, when Galvani and Volta were rising stars. The animal electricity hypothesis became all the rage, triggering a debate over the source of the muscle twitching in Galvani’s dead frogs.
In contrast to Galvani’s belief that a shock delivered from a static electricity generator to a femoral nerve didn’t do anything but awaken some remnant of spiritual forces, Volta, a freethinker of the Enlightenment, proposed that the electrical fluid from the spinning generator used to shock the nerve was itself driving the twitching.
Considering Volta’s idea tantamount to religious heresy, Galvani published further observations that stimuli other than generators could evoke the same twitching. Such stimuli included shocking from a Leyden jar, which Volta retorted was evidence against animal electricity, not in support of it, and mere contact with two different kinds of metals. Curiously, Galvani found that when he suspended his frogs from an iron wire, then ran a copper-containing wire from the iron wire to the exposed femoral nerve, the frog legs would twitch. With nothing attached that could supply electric charge to the nerve, Galvani believed he now had stronger evidence that the twitching was from an internal power, an idea supported by still another observation: he could stimulate the twitching by touching the exposed femoral nerve with another animal nerve, using no metal at all.
Galvani might have continued experimenting, but he lost his academic position and all sources of income when he refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the Cisalpine Republic, a French satellite state that held sway over northern Italy beginning in 1797 and whose legislative body was packed with academics of the Enlightenment, including Alessandro Volta! In a spiraling decline, Galvani died, destitute and depressed, in late 1798.
Volta continued in science for three more decades, motivated to shed light on Galvani’s finding that the wires of two different kinds of metals provoked the muscle twitching. Putting two different metals in his mouth simultaneously, Volta found that he could taste the electricity, but it was too weak to measure with an instrument. Thinking about the multiple chambers in the torpedo fish, however, and how Cavendish had simulated them, Volta piled up alternating discs of copper and zinc, separated by disks soaked in dilute acid. In 1800, he found that this layering amplified the effect, proving that Galvani’s wires themselves had produced electricity. As a result, Galvani is remembered for being wrong about animal electricity. But this isn’t an altogether fair reputation.
The First Battery
Volta’s legacy got an additional boost because his discovery was also an invention, the first battery, which people could appreciate concretely, as it generated the age of electricity with lightning speed. Using a Voltaic battery scaled up to room-sized proportions, England’s Humphry Davy (1778-1829) would demonstrate electric arc lighting in 1808. The electromagnet would enter the scene within Volta’s lifetime, leading to generators, electric motors, and the telegraph within two decades of his death. Yet dependent on all this innovation was Galvani’s initial animal work.
“We should remember that behind every scientific endeavor, there’s always a person who deserves credit regardless of the result,” notes Cerri. “This was true with Italy’s two giants of early electricity research, just as it’s true with so many scientific thinkers today. In real sense, the interplay between Galvani and Volta and the differences in their legacies parallels the current struggle between basic and applied research.”
The ironic twist to the story is that bioelectricity actually is different from electricity employed by our devices.
“Galvani’s intuition about electricity was more true than Volta’s in the broader sense,” says Cerri, alluding to how an action potential is effectively the movement of positive charge along the cytoplasmic surface of the cell membrane of axons and myocytes.
Franklin’s ingenious concept was that electrical charge, like a bank account, could be in surplus or deficit (which he called positive and negative, respectively). This explains the shock of Leyden jars as the need for positive charge to travel through the body of the jar holder to cancel out negative charge on the other side of the glass. The convention for electric current is that it’s a positive charge moving through wires and circuits. That’s backwards when it comes to our devices, where the negatively charged electrons are what’s moving, but it’s correct for our biological currents carried by positive ions!
In much the same way, Galvani and Volta may have moved in philosophically opposite directions, but their theories still provided the initial sparks that lit the way for interventions used to this day in modern medicine.
An approximately $ 2.5 billion plan to bail out Texas’ distressed electricity market from the financial crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri in February was approved by the Texas House Thursday.
The legislation would impose a fee — likely for the next decade or longer — on electricity companies, which would then get passed on to residential and business customers in their power bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday said they could not yet estimate how much it would impact Texans’ electricity bills.
Some of the state’s electricity providers and generators are financially underwater in the aftermath of the February power outages, which left millions without power and killed more than 100 people. Electricity companies had to buy whatever power was available at the maximum rate allowed by Texas regulations — $ 9,000 per megawatt hour — during the week of the storm (the average price for power in 2020 was $ 22 per megawatt hour). Natural gas fuel prices also spiked more than 700% during the storm.
Several companies are nearing default on their bills to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers most of the state and facilitates financial transactions in it.
Rural electric cooperatives were especially hard hit; Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million customers, filed for bankruptcy citing a $ 1.8 billion debt to ERCOT.
State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, the bill’s author, said a second bailout bill will be necessary during the current legislative session for severely distressed electric cooperatives.
“This is a financial crisis, and it’s a big one,” James Schaefer, a senior managing director at Guggenheim Partners, an investment bank, told lawmakers at a House State Affairs Committee hearing in early April. He warned that more bankruptcies would cause higher costs to customers and hurt the state’s image in the eyes of investors.
“You’ve got to free the system,” Schaefer said. “It’s horrible that a bunch of folks have to pay, but it’s a system-wide failure. If you let a bunch of folks crash, it’s not a good look for your state.”
If approved by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, a newly-created Texas Electric Securitization Corp. would use the money raised from the fees for bonds to help pay the companies’ debts, including costs for ancillary services, a financial product that helps ensure power is continuously generated. The aid would only be allowed for the debt that would otherwise be defaulted.
Paddie told his colleagues Wednesday that he could not yet estimate how long the new fee would be imposed, but during committee hearings lawmakers estimated it’s likely to be at least a decade. Several other bills to spread out the costs of the winter storm are also moving through the Legislature.
Instead, lawmakers are pushing for bailouts that several energy experts have said is needed, both to ensure distressed companies don’t pass enormous costs on to their customers and to prevent electricity investors and companies from leaving the state if it’s viewed as too risky to continue doing business.
Becky Klein, an energy consultant in Austin and former chair of the Public Utility Commission who played a key role in de-regulating Texas’ electricity market two decades ago, said during a retail electricity panel hosted by Integrate that legislation is necessary to provide “some kind of backstop during a crazy market crisis like this to show the financial market that we’re willing to provide some relief.”
Still, some lawmakers are concerned with how they will win public support for bills to bail out the state’s electricity market.
“I have to go back to Laredo and say, ‘I know you didn’t have electricity for several days, but now I’m going to make you pay a little more for the next 20 years,’” state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, said during an early April discussion on the plan in the House State Affairs Committee. He said he voted for the bill because it’s in the best interest of the state.
Paddie, during the same committee hearing, acknowledged that “none of us want to increase fees or taxes.” However, he said, “We have to deal with the reality set before us.”
Anyone who followed the EU/UK divorce saga will remember fishing rights were one of the final and biggest sticking points of the Brexit agreement. While fishing is a minuscule section of the economy for the UK and the European Union, it carries hugely significant political weight. Regaining control over UK waters was a key part of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Minister Michael Gove. The deal that was agreed to, by both sides, on Christmas Eve last year contained an entire section and several annexes dedicated entirely to fisheries. Both the UK Government and EU have agreed 25 percent of the former’s fishing rights in UK waters be transferred to the UK fishing fleet over a period fo five years.
This is known as the ‘adjustment period’ and is designed to give EU fleets ample time to get accustomed to the new arrangements.
The EU wanted the adjustment period to surpass five years, while the UK wanted a shorter timeframe, and under plans outlined in the deal European fishing quotas in UK waters will reduce 15 percent in the first year and 2.5 percentage points each year after.
By 2025, UK boats are predicted to have access to an extra £145million of fishing quotas every year.
When the adjustment period ends on June 30, 2026, there will be annual talks to set the amount that EU fishing fleets can catch in UK waters.
The Texas House on Monday gave initial approval to a series of bills aimed at preventing another massive power failure, including one that would require state officials to adopt rules designating certain gas facilities as critical during an energy emergency.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s main power grid, ordered utility companies to cut power during the February winter storm because demand was outpacing supply so much that it threatened the entire grid. But when utility companies complied, they shut off electricity to natural gas facilities, preventing them from delivering fuel to power plants.
That exacerbated ERCOT’s problems during the storm and exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed. Currently, there is no requirement for natural gas and other companies that operate crucial parts of the grid to register as “critical.”
House Bill 14 would create the Texas Electricity Supply Chain Security and Mapping Committee to designate priority electricity service needs for extreme weather events.
“This is establishing a committee that will map the critical infrastructure and force them to be identified so that their electricity is not turned off,” state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who is carrying the legislation, said during Monday’s debate.
The measures the House gave initial approval to Monday come days after ERCOT asked Texans to conserve power on what was a relatively mild spring day. And experts and company executives are warning that the power grid is at risk of another crisis this summer, when demand for electricity typically peaks as homes and businesses crank up air conditioning to ride out the Texas heat.
The committee created by HB 14 would be composed of the executive directors of both the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry; the president and the CEO of ERCOT; and the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Members would have to submit a report to top state officials and the Legislature on their findings by Jan. 1.
State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, raised concerns that HB 14 does not substantively address the state’s infrastructure ahead of future weather emergencies.
“I just feel like this bill does not actually do anything for our infrastructure other than look at it,” Rosenthal said.
The House on Monday also gave initial approval to House Bill 3648, which would require the Railroad Commission to work with the Public Utility Commission and adopt rules to designate certain gas entities and facilities as critical during an energy emergency.
“Had these facilities been designated as critical natural gas facilities, this problem could have been avoided,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who authored the bill.
Members also gave preliminary approval to House Bill 1520, which aims to address high gas costs for consumers as a result of the February winter storm. The bill would allow local distribution companies to securitize the cost of gas during the winter storm and spread that cost over several years. Critics of the measure have said it amounts to a bailout for gas companies. But state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, who authored the bill, denied that portrayal and called it a “common sense solution” for Texas gas consumers.
“Currently, if we do nothing, numerous consumers will receive gas bills that are many, many multiples of their normal bill, as the cost of natural gas is simply passed through from the local distribution companies and gas costs were greatly elevated during the winter storm,” he said.
Senate Bill 3, filed by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, now heads to the Texas House where its prospects are uncertain. Members in the lower chamber will take up a series of related, standalone bills on Tuesday.
SB 3 would require all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines to make upgrades for extreme weather — a process known as weatherization. Most power generators and gas facilities were not equipped to handle temperatures that dipped into single digits last month.
Natural gas regulators and industry groups have claimed that the majority of the problems that caused a shortage of natural gas during the storm — which worsened the problems for power plants — was caused by power outages, and suggested that winterization of the natural gas supply system was unnecessary. The Senate bill reflects that concern, leaving it to the Texas Railroad Commission, the regulatory body that oversees the state’s oil and natural gas industry, to decide what upgrades natural gas fuel facilities would have to make.
The bill does not address funding to pay for the mandated upgrades. However, other pieces of legislation in the Texas House have been proposed with various funding mechanisms. Experts say the process of retrofitting the state’s power plants for winter could be difficult and costly, but not impossible, depending on the types of upgrades eventually mandated by regulators.
Senate Bill 3 would also create a statewide emergency alert system in the event of future blackouts and would create the Texas Energy Reliability Council, modeled after a currently voluntary board by the same name. Known as TERC, the board coordinates state energy regulators, electricity generators and the natural gas fuel industry to ensure reliable gas distribution for electricity. SB 3 would formalize the body and require it to meet twice a year.
Senators tacked on a handful of floor amendments, including a provision that would give the Texas Public Utility Commission six months to draft weatherization rules. The PUC regulates the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s main power grid. The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and natural gas industries, would be required to draft weatherization rules within six months upon completion of a map, detailing Texas’ natural gas supply chain to “designate priority service needs during extreme weather events.”
Both the PUC and Railroad Commission would also be required to conduct on-site inspections to ensure compliance.
Another key provision of the bill would shift some of the financial burden of ancillary services, which help ensure the continuous generation of power to the electricity grid in the ERCOT market, to renewable energy providers, an amendment proposed by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.
Some power plants or large users of power, such as oil refineries, offer to either increase the supply of electricity to the grid or decrease the demand for electricity for a certain price in a day-ahead market. ERCOT, the grid operator, purchases those guarantees to ensure extra power resources could quickly become available if there are any unexpected interruptions to the grid.
Currently, the costs of the services are distributed among customers. But some lawmakers say that the increasing amount of wind and solar generation could require ERCOT to buy more of these services, and argue that renewable power companies should bear the burden of the additional costs.
Hancock told The Texas Tribune that the provision was intended to be a “small tweak” to “level out the peaks and valleys” in market prices that he said are created by cheap and intermittent wind and solar power generators.
The Advanced Power Alliance, a wind and solar industry group in Texas, called proposals to assign the costs to wind and solar power generators an “unnecessary, discriminatory policy,” in a statement issued last week.
Disclosure: Advanced Power Alliance has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.