1. A River Runs Through It
Power plants generate electricity, but they do not create anything from scratch. Instead, generators take electrons, which normally orbit the nucleus of an atom, and force them to move independently through the grid’s closed path. When too many electrons build up or their numbers in the system (monitored here) fall too low, you get a total loss of power: a blackout.
2. Needed: Grid Renovation
Before we can add more renewable energy to the Texas grid, represented above, we must renovate its aging infrastructure. One suggested boost is a giant storage battery to make up any shortfalls in power. Another is improving the distribution system so electricity can flow not just to but from consumers, wherever it is needed most.
3. Hands on Deck
Human controllers at right and above can override computers if power is at risk. When generators fail, as they did last winter in Texas, controllers lean on “demand-response customers”—large electricity users, like factories, that are paid to be on call, ready to use a little less or even shut everything off at a moment’s notice.
4. Renewable Risk
Our current, fragile grid evolved to work with steady energy sources like natural gas and coal. Wind and solar energy, which vary with outside conditions like weather (indicated here) and time of day, are so variable they can destabilize the current grid if they make up more than 20 to 30 percent of the supply.
5. Balance of Power
To avoid blackouts, supply and demand must be almost perfectly balanced, a task given to controllers monitoring the screens. First they make daily forecasts of the next day’s electric demand and supply down to every five minutes. Then if they turn out to be slightly off, controllers tweak the balance by activating backup generators or asking some consumers to use less.