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Blackouts Big as Texas: Could It Happen Here?

AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File

The recent black out in Texas got people wondering: Could something like that happen here?

The Lone Star state lives up to its name especially when it comes to its power grid. It’s not part of any co-op, unlike like most states, which agree to help each other out, sending electricity when and where it’s needed in a pinch.  

“Texas is an isolated grid so the state has its own grid that doesn't connect to the rest of the country. That's by design,”  according to Ivy Main who writes about energy.  “They wanted to keep the federal government out of their business, but it means that they can't call on electricity from other States when their supplies run short in state.”

So when the wind hits the fan so to speak….  “When they had a winter cold snap, their infrastructure just wasn't prepared for it. In Virginia, we are part of a much larger grid. It covers parts of 13 States. And the grid operator does require generators to perform and suffer penalties if they can’t.”

And because Texas had gone a decade with seemingly no major problem with its grid, the powers that be apparently never felt the need to make the kind of upgrades, required in places like here in Virginia.

Saifur Rahman teaches electrical engineering at Virginia Tech. "In our case, we are better planned. We do spend some money to keep reserve in the system if for some reason the natural gas lines freeze, you would be able to depend on my back up in system one and get power from neighbors."

Rahman is the founding director of the advanced research institute at Virginia Tech and he focuses on renewable energy. He says Virginia is looking to push ahead with more green energy and that the State Corporation Commission, the Agency that looks after things like energy costs, has taken this approach to enhancing the state’s portfolio of renewables.  “We have a philosophy that we want to be proactive and careful---not just cheap.”  At least, in this early phase.  “Cheap would come later, but cheap is not the primary concern. It has to work.  As an engineer, I'm more focused on reliability and resilience, then money, not the other way around.”

But in a large sense, for Texas, it did come down to money. With no regulations in Texas requiring certain upgrades, there seemed no reason to be pro-active about shoring up the Texas power grid.

Spending money to upgrade a power grid doesn’t have the same cache or urgency to repair the system that hasn’t yet failed. Rahman says the key is to know when and why to spend money to expand capacity and plan ahead for future conditions.  “In Texas, they didn't do that. They wanted to keep the rate is rates low. And with lower rate, they said, these things are unlikely to happen. So don't worry about it. And now they're worrying about it.”

“And the people in Texas who had rooftop, solar and batteries were gloating on social media about the fact that they still had power, “  adds Ivy Main.   "That's something that every state needs to do more of, is to encourage that kind of distributed solar and distributed batteries, micro grids, you know, emergency centers powered by solar and batteries. That'll make our communities more resilient."

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.