Texas power outage: Data analytics, modeling and policy making will be key to preventing similar disasters

TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Rob Robinson, client partner in utilities practice for Capgemini, an IT consulting company, about predicting threats to the power grid following catastrophic outages in Texas after a winter storm. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: I would think a lot of people, until the last couple of weeks with what we saw down in Texas, wouldn't think twice about the electric grid and whether or not their power will be on or off for a sustained amount of time. What we do know from this is there's going to be a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to what went wrong. How do we keep this from happening again?

Rob Robinson: You're right. This is something that I think there's going to be a lot of critical questions about what should we have known? What should we have communicated? What decisions should we have made? There's a lot of events on the grid, and we've learned a lot from the Northeast Blackout of 2003 on forward. Every time, the industry, and specifically utilities, learn about how their grid behaves, how generation and demand behave. But as we get more and more extreme events, there is no such thing. When I first got into the business, there was something called the Storm of the Century. And after about three of those in about 12 years, some utilities were like, "Well, we can't use that excuse for the regulators anymore. So, we've got to get better at hardening our grid, integrating the grid." And now there are systems operators, just like in Texas, that oversee very large regions of the country, but there's still questions and accountabilities to be adjudicated here in terms of what went wrong.

Karen Roby: If you had to kind of bring it down and summarize, what did go wrong? Where are our biggest faults in this? Where do they lie?

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Rob Robinson: Well, I think what's going to come through many investigations is to look at three things. Everybody's going to first look at the physical infrastructure, both the transmission grid, the distribution grid and the generators that were online. I've been around the grid for a long time. And I know there've been huge advances in reliability, in planning for intermittency. Early on, there was-and I don't want to talk about the debate about whether renewables did or did not cause this, and Texas was pretty far into it. But I think what you're going to see is that in the normal band of operation, I think, not just in Texas, but around the country, there's a lot of scenario planning, there's a lot of analytics that are present and used up from real-time, what they call, state estimation and situational wellness to situational awareness all the way to 20-year modeling to keep this grid stable. But this is one of those events that goes outside of that norm.

All I'll say is this is not like a category 5 hurricane. When a hurricane comes and then you finally pinpoint where it's going to land, it's too late to plan around it. Now you're in the mitigation window. You've got to roll the crews, get people out of harm's way, but hurricanes are going to do damage. This one, there was a foreseeable period of time, but I think the investigation is going to look back and say, "There was an event in 2011 with cold weather, and there were recommendations made." And there's talk in the press now about who did or didn't adopt those, that's one.

Everybody's going to look at the physical grid, but there was not a single catastrophic failure on the grid. There were some, as in any ice storm, there were wires down, but for a large group of people that were impacted, it was a managed shutdown to avoid a catastrophic blackout. They actually turned people off ahead of stressing the grid to the point of it tipping over.

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Now, the other two things we're going to look at are the market itself. Texas is an energy-only market. It's a little bit different than a lot of other parts of the country. There are a lot of generators that are incented to only be online to make money in that moment and not to just have their capacity available. And there were a lot of customers, residential customers you're hearing, you're seeing the clips in the press today, now screaming about thousands of dollars of bills in just a couple of days. There was a lot of risk and exposure in the market.

Then, I think you're going to have to look at the regulatory layer. There's something called prudency in this industry or making sure that there's enough generation adequacy and transmission adequacy to serve the needs because it's a backbone of our country, the power grids that we have today. The regulators are going to be part of this question, too.

Karen Roby: Cybersecurity is something we talk about every day and security concerns all over the board, but especially when it comes to our power grid. How prepared are we in that way?

Rob Robinson: This country has worked really hard in terms of cybersecurity. It's called critical infrastructure protection and there's an organization called NERC [North American Electric Reliability Corporation] that has mandated for the high-voltage grid and all of the players connected to that to protect intrusion and the opportunity for people to manipulate that. Now, as renewables grow and residential customers and market participants, people are putting solar on their home. More and more people are now participating in the power grid, and that makes the cyber question grow even larger. Can someone go into a region or into a pocket and change the dispatch or change the market access to, say, solar and wind in a certain region? It's very hard to tear the whole country down, but target attacks in specific areas are a new frontier of vulnerability.

Cyber is on our minds, and it's not just the physical operators-the market participants have a lot to say in this as well. I mean, there are a lot of retailers out there that promise customers an offer or a deal. Some of them were trying to renege on that deal and say, "We don't have power," or, "You're going to have to pay the price." If they were hacked and manipulated, that could compound the problem. I don't know that we see any cyber risk in this event, but it's ever-present.

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Karen Roby: We've got years of data now, and the analytics information is there. What needs to happen first and foremost going forward, and how concerned are you as to whether or not this is actually going to be solved in a timely manner?

Rob Robinson: I'll take the second part first. I do think this is going to be solved. I think this industry, all the participants, all the utilities and generators will take this to heart, will learn because they're going to be under a lot of scrutiny. You talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning, with all the other events that happen day in and day out, there's so much data and so many patterns to analyze in machine learning. But here, this is a low-frequency event. Hasn't happened like this in this magnitude. What I think you're going to see is analytics at a model of model level.

We normally operate, it's called N -1, N - 2 contingency. We plan for a generator to trip offline, a line to go down, a lightning to strike, but we don't plan for contingency, after contingency, after contingency to fail, and then still think the grid is going to be available. We just don't have willingness to pay that much. But, I think it's going to be a combination of modeling, not just the power grid, but the gas grid, of that water infrastructure-there's a whole huge behavioral modeling frontier that's going to be opened up.

I think, sadly, many people in Texas that took those variable-price deals thought, "Well, if power gets too high, it's going to be a summer problem, and I'm just going to swim in the pool for a week until I can afford to pay power." No one told them that their water pipes would burst. People on TV are saying, "OK, it's feed my kids or pay my power bill." You're going to see a huge shift in how consumers behave and how the market reacts. So, [we'll see] that behavioral modeling and then risk and accountability modeling.

This energy-only market design, they're going to be asking a lot of questions, looking at alternative models, not saying they're going to change, but they're going to have to look and just to figure out what prices and incentives are out there and what expectations and performance clauses, good or bad. If you need to be online as a generator and you were committed and you don't show up, if you didn't weatherize, what's the upside or downside for that behavior?

It's going to open up, I mean, that modeling is out there, but I think it's going to be a 10x attention. And that's going to be very exciting for analytics resources and executives in the power industry, and then everybody's going to want to know what comes out of it, but it's going to be a lot of fun over the next year to take this one apart.

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