02 February 2011

We're Running Out of Electricity

I've written a lot about green building -- how to do it, why it's good for our world, etc., but it wasn't until today that I fully realized why continuing to build inefficient houses isn't really an option. What caused this "aha!" moment? Texas ran out of electricity.

The high temperature in Austin today is about 30 degrees. Overnight it was in the teens. Other parts of the Texas are even colder. So many people used so much energy across the state that we woke up to rolling blackouts. I'd heard the acronym ERCOT before, but until today I had no reason to know or care what it meant. Now I know that the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas is responsible for ensuring that the state has sufficient supplies of electricity to keep things powered. In extreme circumstances -- like sub-freezing temperatures that have everyone running their heaters for hours and hours -- ensuring the "reliability" of electricity requires, ironically, turning it off to certain areas for set periods of time so that no one area loses power altogether. (You may remember a similar situation in California a few years ago, eventually leading to the recall election and Schwarzenegger taking over as the governator.) I know there are a lot of parts of the country where 30 degrees in the winter would be a warm day, but we're just not equipped for it. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a winter day would put us in this predicament -- since the summer, with all of our air conditioning needs, seems like the more likely time of year to run out -- but power plants were only equipped to generate electricity at a certain expected worst-case scenario level...but not enough, apparently, for the actual worst case.

(Update: Apparently the biggest factor was actually the fact that about 10% of the state's power plants malfunctioned because of the cold. Strange but true....)

Our house has been spared (knock on wood), but my office went through several cycles of 15 minutes on, 30 minutes off before my boss made the call to close for the day. Lucky enough to have a window in my office, I took advantage of the time to clean and organize my desk area, but others who either had no light or needed access to the network were not able to accomplish anything at all. ERCOT and local utilities figure out the rolling blackout plan in advance and are able to give priority to those zones that include hospitals, fire stations, etc., but a lot of traffic signals were out on my way home (not blinking red...completely out), and huge traffic delays resulting from having to treat intersections as four-way stops make it difficult to make good use of the unexpected time off.

I just read that ERCOT has given utility companies the green light (no pun intended) to restore power to all areas, but with tonight and tomorrow expected to be just as cold as last night and today, I'm not sure this ordeal is really behind us. We as a society must figure out a better way to meet our energy needs. Austin Energy has tried to be proactive about this for many years; in fact, their green building and various rebate programs are intended to encourage residents to make their houses more efficient so the city won't need to build another power plant. I am proud that we have done (and continue to do) our part, but this isn't something that a handful of hippies can fix. Green building needs to become the standard for all building.

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