It took several generations for titans of industry, generously subsidized by the federal government, to build a national rail grid so that stock, crops, materials and merchandise could be shipped coast to coast, north to south on uniform-sized rails and uniform box and freight cars. Dwight Eisenhower finally won funding for a uniform national (“interstate”) highway grid that mimicked in many ways the autobahns he discovered when he entered Germany at the close of World War II.
The public assumes that America has a single electrical grid that allows a section of the country that is too cold or too hot to directly pull additional power across the continent from the opposite coast. In fact, in this 21st Century, no such continuous and connected grid exists.
Rail lines and interstate highways may go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but east-to-west electrical connectivity simply isn’t there.
Power does flow across many state borders: California receives power from British Columbia in the north, when it needs it, and from our own Bonneville Power Administration in Washington State that dams and taps the mighty Columbia River as it falls south and to the west from Rocky Mountain peaks to enter the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.
And Hoover Dam across the Colorado River in Nevada sends what power Las Vegas doesn’t grab off to light up Hollywood and all of Southern California. Canadian rivers in the Northeast send power down to Manhattan and other Eastern seaboard cities.
But there is still no single electrical “highway” connecting power plants or dams in the Atlantic Northeast with the West. Instead, there are “wide area synchronous grids” – The Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, the Quebec Interconnection, and the Alaska Interconnection.
And there’s one more: The Texas Interconnection which cools my home – a merchant market system that is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Reliable, it is. (Politicians just love to throw a marketing message into their laws and agency names.). Here in Texas, we just call it ERCOT.
ERCOT isn’t overseen by the federal government because as an 80,000 Mw system it is not synchronized with the rest of the U.S. grid – and Texas being Texas seems to like it that way. It sticks mostly to our state borders and principally supplies 24 million Texans who use its power to run their homes and businesses.
ERCOT members authorized to tap and trade power along the shared grid include a hodgepodge of electricity brokers (real power brokers), direct industrial consumers, electric cooperatives, independent power generators, retail electric providers and utilities of every stripe across the state that may be investor-owned or owned by municipalities or cooperatives.
Perhaps because there has been little federal interference with ERCOT, the technologies providing the power in Texas have been advancing faster than most anywhere else in the country. Rick Perry, who was Governor of Texas for an unprecedented 14 years before becoming the U.S. Secretary of Energy, personally encouraged economic development associated with “experimentation” and technology advances.
It was during the Perry administration, and certainly because of his direct involvement and encouragement, that Texas became the dominant provider of electricity from wind power, which has helped us survive some of our extraordinary heat waves in recent years. When investor groups I worked with wanted to qualify and introduce power from gas-fired turbine power plants into the Texas grid, Rick Perry was enthusiastic and involved, helping us navigate state regulators.
As a result, few of the power grids in North America are nearly as agile and resilient as the ERCOT grid in Texas. Gas turbine-based power plants are now a major part of that mix. The pioneering work Texas does in fracking and our resulting abundant, clean gas resources will make gas-fired turbine power an efficient ancillary backup for vital and critical uses for generations to come.
Technology, of course, doesn’t stay in a box and some of the most exciting work we are doing at Navasota Energy is to marry advanced turbine technology with waste reformation advances that can turn huge local mountains of urban waste into safe, clean biofuel for local electrical generation.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the power of waste. We will have more exciting news on that front for you, later this year. Watch this space!