This week, both Iowa and Texas faced below-freezing temperatures as residents bundled up indoors. The difference? As winter storms rolled in, more than 3 million Texas customers were hit with power blackouts as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the nation’s only single-state electric grid operator, failed to meet surging demand.

Iowans have experienced widespread power failure before, but the state’s ties to the Eastern Interconnection energy grid -- one of three U.S. grids, including the Western Interconnection and ERCOT -- gives Iowa a broader geographic diversity of resources, as well as diversity of energy production. It’s not a guarantee of protection from widespread events, said Jim McCalley, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University.

“Severe events occur in every region of the country at one time or another. We had the derecho here back in August on a different level, for a different reason,” McCalley said. “No region, anywhere, is entirely protected against such kinds of events.”

The Eastern Interconnection grid system spans more than 120,000 miles of electric lines, bordering from northern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa’s utility providers operate under the Midwest Reliability Organization, a regional regulation council under the Eastern Interconnection.

“Conceivable, a generator in south Georgia could supply energy to Iowa and vice versa,” McCalley said. “That tends to be beneficial, because in these kinds of events it’s not often you would get the entire geographical region of eastern United States suffering such an event.”

Not often, but it is possible -- McCalley points to the 2003 Northeast power outage as a precedent. That event, resulting from technical errors at an Ohio supply station, affected an estimated 45 million U.S. residents. Most widespread examples of grid failure come after extreme events, such as high heat and drought in California last summer, or the 2014 tsunami that wiped out Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant.

“You can’t zero the impact, but you can mitigate, reduce the impact and the duration of that impact, and that’s the main focus of the research that has taken place over the last decade,” McCalley said.

Part of the utility failure in ERCOT is compounded because natural gas is used in both power production and heating in the state -- the “perfect storm” of twin pressure on a system not designed to handle severe winter temperatures. In 2019, Iowa produced 41% of its electric generation from wind energy sources, followed by 35% from coal and 12% from natural gas, according to the Iowa Utilities Board.

“In that sense, Iowa is not as exposed as Texas would be,” he said.

What would help prevent such widespread blackouts in the future?

Strengthening a geographic diversity of energy supply resources, such as the macrogrid model McCalley and co-author Qian Zhang studied in a 2020 report, would build in resilience and ease of distribution to parts of the U.S. straining under an emergency load, McCalley said. (As the Business Record reported in December, the two researchers noted North America is substantially behind global investment of interregional macrogrids.)

Developing community energy production and storage resources -- such as a solar panel garden, a wind farm or similar practices with energy storage capability -- delivers energy closer to residents and businesses, supporting that local energy need even if cable transmission is not functioning.

“That’s a very attractive resource, because it brings resources closer to the load, but also at a much more economical fashion. It’s cheaper to do -- you get economies of scale in the community resource that you might not if you try to build it one household at a time,” McCalley said.