Texas entered its third full day cycling in and out of the dark after frigid temperatures triggered a power crisis early Monday morning. A staggering 3.4 million people were still without power on Wednesday morning after rain and snow pelted the state overnight. The state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, couldn’t project when the power would be restored.
When the cold front hit over the weekend, electricity use soared to heat buildings, but the grid couldn’t keep up with demand. Natural gas plants, which supply the majority of the state’s electricity, were not equipped to operate at such low temperatures. Despite widespread false claims spread on Fox News that frozen wind turbines were solely to blame for the blackout, failures at these gas plants are the main cause of the crisis, a spokesperson for ERCOT told Bloomberg.
The blackout has laid bare just how dangerous an unstable electricity grid can be, particularly in extreme weather. Texas officials have attributed at least 17 deaths to the storm so far, and over 300 people have been hospitalized from carbon monoxide exposure from using grills and other devices to try to heat their homes, the Houston Chronicle reported.
City services have also failed: People living in over 200,000 homes in the Fort Worth area were told to boil water Tuesday after several water treatment plants lost power. On Wednesday, Houston residents got a similar notice:
BREAKING: Houston issues “boil water notice” for the nation’s 4th largest city until further notice. Between power and water, this unfolding crisis is of a magnitude the city has not seen - even during Hurricane Harvey.— Janet Shamlian (@JanetShamlian) February 17, 2021
The New York Times reported that marginalized communities are facing some of the worst conditions, from a lack of insulation in homes to potential pollution exposure from industrial plants that quickly shut down due to the storm.
Is this kind of power and public health crisis preventable? Experts say absolutely yes, and that there are a few key things Texas — and other states — can do to strengthen their electricity grids and prevent this kind of suffering in the future.
1) Plan for new extremes
One of the reasons that the grid has been so ill equipped to handle the surge in power demand: ERCOT used past winters as their reference when planning for this winter’s capacity needs. Unfortunately, this winter storm is well outside historical norms: The thermostat hit -2 degrees Fahrenheit in Dallas on Tuesday morning, the coldest it has been in 72 years. This storm is also the first time a winter storm warning has been issued for the whole state.
Alison Silverstein, an independent energy consultant and former strategic advisor for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), told Vox that system operators and utilities need to plan for a future with heightened risks due to climate change instead of “looking in the rearview mirror.”
So will this kind of extreme winter weather event become more frequent? The science isn’t yet fully clear. Climate researchers are debating the extent to which the current extreme winter weather is linked to larger warming trends in the Arctic, and worldwide. And there’s no consensus yet.
Nevertheless, Mike O’Boyle, the director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, said grid planners need to integrate cutting-edge climate science into their forecasting to help systems prepare for extremes. This may be difficult, he acknowledged, when the climate science isn’t fully settled for a certain weather effect like the polar vortex. (Disclosure: I worked at Energy Innovation as a research fellow from 2015 to 2016).
But if ERCOT had erred on the side of caution around the possibility of temperatures this low in Texas, power plants could have been built to better withstand the cold. Wind turbines, some of which did freeze in Texas, could have been equipped with technologies such as automatically heated carbon fiber coatings that are used in Sweden and other colder regions. For natural gas plants, more fuel reserves could have been stockpiled (the natural gas supply has also been interrupted by the weather, complicating the situation in Texas).
With all these “insurance” measures to gird against bad weather, grid operators will have to evaluate the trade-offs between enhanced safety and costs, said Le Xie, a professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University, but he said this event has certainly been a “wake-up call.”
But the lesson here extends far beyond preparing for blizzards in Texas. California has also faced severe blackouts, most recently when a heatwave hit the whole Western US in August. Planning for these regional extremes that climate change will bring is critical for all grid systems — Texas is just the latest glaring case of failure, as FiveThirtyEight science writer Maggie Koerth spelled out:
Point is: Disasters will show you right quick where and how your particular infrastructure is kluged together with duck tape and dreams. And the fact that you don’t see that is because you aren’t experiencing a disaster right now ... not because your grid is better.— Maggie Koerth (@maggiekb1) February 17, 2021
2) A united grid is a stronger grid
One of the unique features of the Texas grid is that it is mostly isolated from the rest of the country. As explained in a brief history of ERCOT in the Texas Tribune, the state intentionally separated itself from the rest of the country to avoid federal regulation. As you might imagine, having an island grid limits the state’s options when faced with an electricity shortage.
“I think overall in this situation the interconnection would have helped ERCOT,” Chanan Singh, a professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University told Vox, referring to the links Texas could have with the country’s two other grids: the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection.
During this power shortage, Texas could be tapping into electricity sources from far-flung parts of the country if it were connected.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 2020 Interconnections Seam Study found that the cost savings from a nationwide high-voltage transmission network would outweigh the investments needed to build it. An expansive transmission buildout would not only enhance the resiliency of the grid, it would also help to balance wind and solar resources as they reach higher penetrations, O’Boyle said.
3) Power plants don’t have to do all of the work
The focus of the crisis in Texas has largely been how the power plants have failed, but Silverstein sees an opportunity for consumers to be a bigger part of the solution.
A 2020 report Silverstein co-authored for the Environmental Defense Fund showed how ERCOT can meet future demand through improved energy efficiency and “demand-side response” — changes electricity consumers make to reduce peak demand.
More than 1 million customers in the state already use time-of-use pricing to lower their electricity bills, for instance by running their dishwashers at night when electricity is typically more abundant and therefore cheaper. But further efforts to use customer demand as a resource to decrease the burden on the grid are still at “a nascent stage here,” Singh said in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, pointing to the need for further regulation.
Basic increases in energy efficiency would also help lower demand. Silverstein said, “We should be doing a full-court press on deep energy efficiency retrofits of multi-family homes and lower-income and middle-income homes, as well as setting energy efficiency standards for all new construction across Texas.”
The wrong lesson
As the Texas freeze crisis has worsened, right-wing commentators have tried to pin the blame on renewable energy, ignoring the freezing of natural gas supplies and power plants. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas jumped on the bandwagon, arguing on Fox News that the situation is further evidence that fossil fuels are needed.
These two statements barely 24 hours apart pic.twitter.com/Eu9Swz6Wxd— Brian Kahn (@blkahn) February 17, 2021
That claim ignores the connection between burning fossil fuels and the extreme weather that is threatening the stability of grids across the country.
“The worst thing that could possibly happen,” said O’Boyle, “is that we somehow have policymakers decide to double down on fossil fuel infrastructure as a resilience solution.”
Instead, policymakers need to use all the tools at their disposal, from strengthening transmission to using energy efficiency and battery storage, to make sure the grid can withstand the myriad threats of climate change while also speeding up the transition to renewable energy.