Opinion: A stitch in time preserves energy, too

As compared to Texas, Georgia’s still a “regulated” state meaning that from the power plant to the meter behind your house, the power company, with PSC oversight, is responsible and has complete control of ensuring reliability.

When I was the lone grandchild of my paternal grandmother, I was her hobby -- and that included teaching me some sewing skills. The old expression “a stitch in time saves nine” came from that era and simply means to fix problems when they are small to avoid larger problems in the future. Believe or not, the adage applies to the energy world too, and is on full display in Texas now. But could this happen in Georgia?

As the snow started falling in Texas and temperatures dropped, people huddled at home and cranked the thermostat up. Energy demand spiked across a chilly Texas, but things started to go wrong on all energy platforms. There were unplanned outages from every fuel type: a pump broke at a nuclear power plant, wind turbines froze in place, natural gas flow to power plants was restricted because of heavy home usage, and equipment failed at coal plants. In other words, the fabric was ripping across the state of Texas.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

In Georgia, we use our triennial energy planning period to do stitching as we find small tears in our system. The most important stitch is that of a diversified fuel mix. We’ve kept our cleanest coal plants where we have invested in billions in pollution scrubbers. We have increased our gas plants five-fold even allowing the utility to buy a gas company adding to our dispatchable baseload power. Responding to the market, we have added solar to the grid with appropriate backup. These panels provide an important homegrown energy source that helps during our peak energy periods every day.

And despite all odds, we have persisted with building two Westinghouse nuclear reactors that will power 500,000 homes and will run for 18 months without refueling. The well-trained and well-staffed craft labor force at our plants are showing the world that America can build the most sophisticated energy plant in the world — and it is greatly bolstering our state economy in the process — and will for 80 years.

Another stitch we have made is resisting the temptation to deregulate the power system in Georgia. We are still a “regulated” state meaning that from the power plant to the meter behind your house, the power company, with PSC oversight, is responsible and has complete control of ensuring reliability. Like most states, Georgia asks its utilities to do reserve margin studies and plan for the worst event that could happen in any given decade. ERCOT — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — is a deregulated energy-only market. In general, deregulation can lead to a lower standard of preventive maintenance at plants and lower reserve margins — both driven by a desire to save money.

In Georgia, we have sewn into our fabric a winter planning reserve margin approaching 26 percent. In fact, the Georgia PSC reviewed the level of contingency in 2020, and allowed Georgia Power to substantially increase their planning strategy for moments just like Texas is experiencing. Why? Because in 2019 we noted a small “tear” that identified a key winter reliability risk.

To fix this, numerous stitches were made, including the narrowing of the difference between summer and winter weather-normal peak loads, higher volatility of winter peak demands relative to summer peak demands, cold-weather-related unit outages, the penetration of solar resources, increased reliance on natural gas, and market purchase availability.

But we are not perfect. There is no doubt that if we experienced single digit temperatures — especially for an extended period, it would stretch the fabric. Throw in some freezing rain that brings down pine trees on power lines, and it probably gets worse. But the attentive stitching that me and my colleagues do alongside our staff and the utilities has proven to be a stitch in time.

We’re not perfect, but we have a proven strategy. And once Texas digs out of this storm, I am sure Georgia and all states will draw on the lessons learned from their experience. In the meantime, prayers for Texas as they recover.

Tim Echols is vice chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission.