Frozen Texas

It has been a while since I have been meaning to write an article and start my own blog page but could not find the motivation or the topic. Come to think of it I recently witnessed an event along with millions of other Texans in the USA. In February, week right after the February 14th, Texas observed one among the coldest winters in history. The temperatures plummeted to -9°F (-23°C). The snow remained outside blocking the driveways and the temperatures remained sub-zero for several days. Now this is not something out of the ordinary for places far up north on the globe or higher in the altitude like Washington, New York, Canada, Greenland, Norway etc. But this is not normal for a place such as Texas and the authority were not ready for handling this situation. The worst impact of this weather was a spike in the energy supply demand.

How a Winter Storm Tested Texas' Go-It-Alone Attitude - POLITICO
Frozen Texas with icicles
Source: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/02/19/how-a-winter-storm-tested-texas-go-it-alone-attitude-470202
Temperature recorded in Dallas in February
Source: https://www.accuweather.com/en/us/dallas/75202/february-weather/351194
Winter Storm Uri Spread Snow, Damaging Ice From Coast-to Coast, Including  the Deep South (Recap) | The Weather Channel - Articles from The Weather  Channel | weather.com
Weather chart showing estimated snowfall in Texas from Feb 13-16
Source: https://weather.com/safety/winter/news/2021-02-14-winter-storm-uri-south-midwest-northeast-snow-ice

I am not an expert on the energy supply to comment on the capacity of the power plants. From what I read and saw in the news and several informative YouTube videos, the power plants faced several issues ranging from frequency matching, load distribution and even supply of natural gas due to hydrate formation in the pipelines. The natural gas power plants, which handle almost 47% of the Texas power supply, could not handle the increasing surge of supply. There was a surge of demand by 15GW in just 8 hours. The overall Texas power plants supply was already down to a quarter by the time temperatures had dropped to lowest on Monday morning. Due to increasing demand the load on the generators causes an imbalance in the frequency. This imbalance can lead to catastrophic failures in the generators, power supple and equipment. The power plants were just 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from a total grid collapse which could have resulted in complete blackout for not only days but weeks and may be months in some cases. No matter what we were all thinking sitting in our homes but there were people working tirelessly to make sure to keep us warm and ensure we do not plunge into complete darkness.

Texas Snow Storm Crushes the Grid – Canadian Veggie
Natural Gas took the biggest hit
Source: https://canadianveggie.com/2021/02/21/texas-snow-storm-crushes-the-grid/
Rapid decrease in frequency causes frequency drop. Load shed helped prevent complete grid failure by 4:37 seconds
Source: https://www.kut.org/energy-environment/2021-02-24/texas-power-grid-was-4-minutes-and-37-seconds-away-from-collapsing-heres-how-it-happened

ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) and other power plants might already have a plan to overcome these situations. But what can we do to be prepared in such situations?

  1. There are solutions, of course, to have an emergency kit at home, emergency batteries, fire log wood enough ration, store, and conserve water. What else can we do to help ERCOT and power supply companies?
  2. Solar panels are a solution that may have crossed everyone’s mind. This is a good source which can help reduce the power bills, but they come at a significant installation cost and may not actually come in handy during situations of long power outages.
  3. Supporting the government initiative for wind power (which already manage almost 25% of power supply in Texas) is also a good solution but the unique situation that occurred this year led icing of the wind turbines, stalling them.

I thought of bringing in a discussion which may help ERCOT and other power companies.

Right now, power supply companies have the responsibility to provide power based on the consumption that they observe. This happens indirectly as they are not able to look inside each home to see what appliances we are using.  This means that during summers this demand increases as everyone has the air conditioning turned on and in winters the heaters. Since heating and cooling cover most of the part of our energy demand would it help the power supply if they can understand the power supply requirement on each home basis?

First question is, can this help or not.

We are talking about an overwhelming amount of information (Big Data) that power supply companies will need to handle and will need help of cloud computing to store and analyze. Even if there is a system to store this data and analyze what good can this do to the power supply companies? In my opinion it can help a lot

  1. We can pin-point the houses with people who need constant power supply, such as houses with newborn, infants, toddlers, kids, old age or with special medical condition.
  2. House(s) that have 2 AC units and hence have the option of using only 1 in case of emergency (depending on the house architecture)
  3. House(s) with known nearby family/ family members
  4. House(s) or communities with known power routines.

Answers to these questions can help the power supply companies to prioritize, standardize, and modulate the resources. For instance, if there is an old home society, they might need continuous power supply but there is also a likely situation in such extreme weather condition that many older people may move to live with their family members. In such situations it would be good to know who is in the house and who is not so that power supply is not wasted.

Now that we have established that there are some advantages for power companies to have an insight to each house, how do we achieve it?

Keeping the discussion for data privacy separate, there is a very smart way to achieve this and that is through smart thermostats.

Several options available for Smart Thermostats
Source: https://frittsheatingandair.com/blog/general/benefits-of-smart-thermostat/

There have been some known benefits of having a smarter home feature for controlling AC units and other appliances. Individual homes have seen reduction in power consumption and monthly bills using smart thermostats. This is since the system is able to identify the pattern when the residents are in home and their pattern.

Total energy efficiency savings for 36000 smart thermostat participants
Source: https://neep.org/blog/how-smart-can-your-thermostat-bee

For doing this over a large scale, such as a community or city level, the amount of data increases several folds and as mentioned earlier becomes hard to handle. This Big Data can be handled using cloud computing solutions. Since I am not an expert on that either, I am going to focus on what benefit can we achieve from this analysis.

Here are some thoughts I had through which smart thermostats can help in such cases

  1. Many people had relocated in this extreme weather to their neighbor’s or relative’s homes. There can be instances when they might have forgotten to turn off the air conditioning unit. Having a smart thermostat system can quickly identify that the user is not in the home and since the demand for power supply has increased the system automatically shuts down the air conditioning.
  2. With minor modifications in the air ducts, we can shut down part of the home so that the heating/ cooling can be done only for one or two rooms (using remote controlled valves). This could have worked for me and my family as we stayed inside one room for 90% of the day and came out only for cooking (when power came on).
  3. During summers the system can advise opening the doors and windows which can help in using the natural draft instead of air conditioning. This can be even automated by having smart windows and door locks. The air ducts can also have an opening to outside which allows to have a draft of fresh air inside the home through the same circulation system.
  4. Smart thermostats can also bring in the suggestions for the users during such situations and act as communication from the power supply companies and ERCOT. There can be suggestions customized for every home which help the user plan the outages and reduce the power consumption.
  5. The smart system can also help advice in emergency if it will be better to relocate to one place with your friends or families or not.

These are just a few ways in which a smart thermostat or having a smart home altogether can help the power supply companies. I understand that privacy can become a major issue in such scenarios but using smart phones, smart cams, smart doorbells and virtual assistants the privacy is already at stake.

I am not sure if this can help the power companies and the entire society as whole, but I guess in such extreme situations even a tiny amount of help could prove to be a game changer.

In general situation, i.e. when no such emergency exists, this can help in overall reduction in power consumption by identifying the trends again.

There can be a lot to discuss in this matter and I would love to hear the thoughts.

In no way this article advertises any product, website or person. The pictures used have been marked for their source and I have been careful enough to not use names of any products.

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