Concerned whether rolling blackouts in Texas may have been an effort to artificially inflate energy prices from the typical $50/MWh to a whopping $3000/MWh seen on February 2 the PUC plans to investigate whether equipment failure and fuel supply shortage is the real cause.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas has tasked Daniel Jones, the state’s independent energy monitor, with conducting a probe to determine if utilities, pipeline operators or other involved parties were at fault, regarding the rolling blackout that hit the state’s power supply last week. Key questions will include whether or not some companies faked issues with generating units or were deliberately slow at restarting tripped units to artificially push electricity prices up, behaviour seen during California’s energy crisis of 2000-01. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is looking to work with utilities to see if greater weather proofing of facilities is required to prevent breakdowns triggered by equipment freezing and cracking.

The recent ice storm stretching from Texas up and throughout the Northeast saw as many as 110 million people without power for as little as ten minutes and as long as two days. The storm wasn’t a surprise and FEMA anticipated the usual storm related blackouts associated with falling branches and downed power lines, (see video below). The rolling blackouts in Texas were of another variety altogether and have the reminiscent scent of Enron, that famously gamed the grid as a commodities trading vehicle in order to enrich day traders.

Presently, it looks like bad weather and bad planning combined to create the ‘perfect storm’ that can only be obtained through a centralized power system. But who stands to benefit from a price rate increase?

The operators of Texas’ electricity grid blamed myriad problems at power plants across Texas for last week’s rolling blackouts. But interviews and a review of documents by The Dallas Morning News reveal that the breakdown of a cluster of coal-fired plants in Central Texas was at the heart of the problem.

To compound the problem, many of the natural gas-fueled plants that would normally fire up to restore power didn’t have enough gas.

So early Wednesday morning, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas began shutting off power to customers after a quick, deep freeze sliced through the state.

The grid lost 7,000 megawatts of capacity, enough to power 1.4 million homes, and 50 power plants stopped working. Texans endured eight hours of rolling blackouts.

“It appears the people in the control room were faced with something out of a bad science-fiction movie,” said Public Utility Commissioner Ken Anderson.

Gas shortages were exacerbated by a catch 22 made possible by the centralized system wherein power necessary to operate gas delivery systems wasn’t available from the over taxed grid to fuel backup power plants.

utilities faced the highest demand for natural gas in 30 years, and had to cut supply to natural gas-fueled power plants. Atmos Energy, the North Texas gas utility, cuts supply to power plants several times each winter, when supply gets tight. Power plants enjoy a reduced rate for gas in exchange for the inconvenience…

…“What made it worse, as time went on, here came rolling blackouts.”

The rolling blackouts shut down more equipment used by gas well owners, further crimping supply.

Utilities, largely privatized over the years, argue that building massive multi-megawatt power plants in remote locations and transmitting that power hundreds of miles via high voltage transmission lines is the most cost effective and reliable method for the ratepayer. One thing extreme weather demonstrates beyond argument is that central grid redundancy is a total myth. Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission had agreed to transmit 280 megawatts of electricity to Texas had to back down on the offer to come to the assistance of Texas’ when below freezing temperatures made its own power needs take precedence.

What the centralized system really does is concentrate the control of an essential public service into the control of a very few corporations. The central grid allows electricity to be treated as a commodity and enables the ratepayer to bear the burden of poor planning amongst increasingly deregulated monopolies.

El Paso Electric CEO David W. Stevens sat down with the Times to talk about the his company’s role in the frigid storm.

Some edited, extended excerpts:

Q Is it a black eye for the company when customers wake up to find it can’t provide the service they’re paying for?

A I definitely understand the angst and the anger the customers have had, but I think the far, far majority have been understanding. The simple answer is we are a summer-peaking utility. Not to make any excuses, because this is not acceptable and we are going to look at all of this as we come out of it. But we are really going to drive our system as we hit the peak, hottest day of the year. That’s our true goal as a utility. I don’t believe that many utilities I know of designed their facilities to hit 110 degrees on one end and negative temperatures on the other end, and that’s what really caused us the problems in this situation.

Even a modern, central grid in the best of weather is subject to massive failures like this one in Brazil.

A widespread blackout cut power to millions of people across Brazil’s northeast Friday, but officials insisted the accident should not raise worries about the energy supply in a nation that will host an Olympics and a World Cup.

Officials said the power failures began in the early morning and quickly spread across seven states in the vast region. A preliminary estimate by energy companies indicated at least 10 million people were affected.

In some areas, the power was only out for a few minutes, in other areas a few hours.

Mozart Bandeira Arnaud, director of operations at the Sao Francisco Hydroelectric Company, the biggest supplier of energy in the area, told the Globo TV network the power was mostly restored by 8 a.m. and that the problem originated in a substation that feeds high-transmission lines leading to three other energy suppliers, causing the failure to ripple across the region.

“There was a failure in an electronic component that was part of protection system of the substation,” said Arnaud.

He said this triggered the security system of the Luiz Gonzaga substation in Pernambuco state to automatically shut down, cutting power to six high-transmission power lines running from the station, causing the blackouts to quickly spread.

The argument of cost efficiency in a central system is lost when factoring in the losses associated with long distance transmission, a million dollar a mile price tag for high voltage transmission lines and their enormous environmental footprint and the negative economic impact of cascading wide scale blackouts. A solution is to implement distributed energy systems producing power at the point of consumption where load matching is much easier to handle and unlike the one size fits all centralized approach, can be tailored to the local circumstances. A distributed microgrid system would enable the successful implementation of renewable yet intermittent resources like wind and solar reducing the need for backup gas and coal fueled power systems.