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If The Texas Power Grid Had Gone Down, It Would Need A 'Black Start.' How Long Would That Take?

 Part of Austin Energy's Decker Creek Power Station natural gas plant in far east Austin.
Part of Austin Energy's Decker Creek Power Station natural gas plant in far east Austin.

As bad as the February blackouts in Texas were, it could have been much, much worse.

Early in the morning of Feb. 15, grid operators at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas cut power to millions of people to head off a catastrophic failure of the power grid that serves most of the state. If they hadn't, they risked damaging equipment on the grid and causing a cascading series of failures that would have left most of Texas in the dark.

Not just homes and businesses, but hospitals, police and fire stations — anything without a generator or other independent source of electricity.

“It would be the equivalent of going back to the Stone Age, it really would,” said Pat Wood, the former chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

It’s happened before in other parts of the country, but in Texas it would play out much differently. That’s because the state has its own power grid with minimal connections to neighboring grids.

When a power grid goes down, the process of getting it running again is called a black start. (Spooky, right?)

But when a grid has no power on it, how do you start a power plant? These facilities need energy to start up. All the sensors and machinery — and even the generator itself — need power.

ERCOT pays 13 power plants around the state to be ready to start themselves up in these situations without help from the grid. These plants are supposed to have fuel and generators or battery supplies on site in case they’re needed.

But even if you start one plant, there’s this delicate balancing act that needs to happen to bring the rest of the grid online. Think of it like starting a fire. First, you have a spark. You use that to light some dry grass. Then you get some kindling going. Then you use that flame to light a bigger piece of wood and then a bigger one and a bigger one.

So one power plant might start up with its own backup generator. Then that power plant can help the next one and the next one.

“It requires these incremental steps in different parts of the system and then linking together those places in the system to restitch the grid into a place where you can operate it as a whole,” Bill Magness, then-CEO of ERCOT, told a board of directors meeting shortly after the February storms.

But even as you get the plants up and running, you need a way to balance the grid. The power being generated needs someplace to go. So operators need to make sure the amount of power going onto the grid is getting used by someone. And if that gets too far out of balance, the whole system can come crashing down again.

Add to that any potential damage to equipment from the initial failures and severely limited communication, and the process of a black start could take a very long time.

“I think it’s safe to say it could be weeks, and depending on the conditions you’re operating under when you go into a black start condition, it could take longer than that,” Magness said.

Imagine the state of Texas in the dark for weeks — or longer — and the situation starts to sound pretty apocalyptic.

But that’s not even the scariest part.

At that board meeting after the storms, Magness was asked a question: How many of those 13 black start power plants were functional that week?

“Six of the 13 experienced outages,” he told the board. “Those outages ranged from a low of four hours to one that went [down for] 127 hours during the course of the event. Of the six, two had alternate generators, but those also experienced outages.”

In short, about half of Texas’ black start power plants were out of commission for at least some period of time during the storms.

“That was just a shock to me,” said Wood, the former PUC chair. “I just thought if there’s anything that should be more secure in the Western Hemisphere than a black start power plant — [it's] maybe Fort Knox and maybe wherever the president resides and is running the country. If those plants are not secure, then our system’s not secure.”

During the 2003 blackout in the Northeastern U.S., several state power grids needed a black start. They were able to get a jump from their neighbors, and the power was out for just a few hours.

But on Texas’ energy island, it could be much longer — provided the power plants needed to bring the grid back to life are operational.

Got a tip? Email Matt Largey at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.

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Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.
Matt has been a reporter at KUT off and on since 2006. He came to Austin from Boston, then went back for a while--but couldn't stand to be away--so he came back to Austin. Matt grew up in Maine (but hates lobster), and while it might sound hard to believe, he thinks Maine and Texas are remarkably similar.