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Texas crisis helps the case of virtual power plants

image credit: Courtesy Dreamstime
Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 753 items added with 371,481 views
  • Feb 22, 2021

My home state of Texas went through it this week. Cities as large as San Antonio and Houston had massive blackouts in temperatures that remained well-below freezing for nearly an entire week. To add salt to the wide-open wound, when the power came back, large swaths of cities, such as my home base of Austin, were left without running water. 

Now that power is mostly restored, investigations will begin into what happened. News reports show that the historic winter storm harmed much of Texas's energy production, mostly natural gas, though wind and solar took hits as well. Demand for energy (heaters) during the storm surged and the state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) told all utilities to take as many people off the power grid as possible in order to shed enough load to keep the entire state power system from failing. It's shocking to think that so many people left in the cold, many freezing to death, was the result of a conscious human decision made because the alternative would be so much worse. 

It could be said that a decentralized power grid structure, could have prevented much of the suffering taken on by utility customers this week. In Austin, neighborhoods with a virtual power plant model could have prevailed when Austin Energy had to shed massive amounts of load off the power grid to prevent catastrophic failure. The customers depended on Austin Energy and only Austin Energy for their power. This would not have happened in a virtual power plant model. 

I think of how the Soleil Lofts, the 600-unit solar and storage residential community just outside of Salt Lake City, would have fared in this week's situation. Austin Energy decides to cut power to homes in the neighborhood in order to prevent overloaded demand. The 600-home community then switches to its virtual power plant, which has the ability to store 12.6 megawatt-hours in batteries. The community then understands the severity of the situation and the need to conserve power. The families and residents in the community stay warm, invite others to their community to charge up, find refuge. 

Crisis averted? On a large scale, no, but on a microscale, yes. And the microscale is really what VPPs are all about anyway. At 12.6 megawatt-hours, the power stored in batteries could have powered many other homes for that freezing week as well. Now, imagine a city where VPPs are common, or VPP communities include hospitals or other critical infrastructure. Suddenly, shedding so much load becomes less catastrophic. The Texas Freeze and enery crisis may be the perfect jumping off point for widespread adoption of this model. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 23, 2021

"The families and residents in the community stay warm, invite others to their community to charge up, find refuge."


At a cost 70% higher than comparable apartments in Herriman, UT, maybe residents of Soleil Lofts could get others to kick in part of their virtual rent that month, too? And the next month's, if their guests' plumbing still hasn't been repaired?

Or -

Maybe Herriman will sign on as part of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems' (UAMPS) plan to purchase a NuScale Small Modular Reactor power plant, so everyone in town can have reliable, carbon-free power at the same low price - even when it's cold, calm, dark - or all of the above!

NuScale and UAMPS agreements progress plans for SMR plant

Christopher Neely's picture
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