Freezing cold temperatures put the Texas electric grid into distress this week, with dozens of deaths and other human suffering, more than 4 million people losing power, and more than 40% of the state’s gas, coal, and nuclear fleet offline at times. It’s clear that the cold caught grid planners and power plant owners by surprise, and the toll on the people of Texas and elsewhere is catastrophic—and still being felt.
While it will take time to examine all the causes of this ongoing catastrophe, one thing is clearer now than ever before: We need an electricity system in Texas—and across the U.S.—that can withstand the extreme weather fueled by climate change. Whether it’s hurricanes or flooding or an arctic blast of cold, we can expect more extremes. We need more responsiveness and adaptability in the entire system so that we can respond to the next extreme weather crisis.
In the case of Texas, three key facts already stand out: grid planners need to plan for increasingly extreme weather events, gas power plants are especially vulnerable, and the state’s electrical independence comes at a price.
Extreme weather impacts on power production
Cold weather brought much of the power system to its knees in Texas. Grid planners expect and plan for some generation to fail, but extreme weather events over the last few years will force grid planners and other regulators to establish new resilience standards for generators of all types. While fossil fuel apologists groan about renewable energy, the initial data shows that a stunning 30 gigawatts of mostly gas generation in Texas failed because of the cold. That’s unacceptable.
Coming only a few months after the Western heat storm in August-September 2020, one might look for similarities between that crisis and the ongoing crisis in Texas. In size alone, the Texas disaster is far worse than the California outages in terms of the extent and duration of the outages. Yet the better comparison is more with the January 2014 Polar Vortex in the East. At that time, up to 22 percent of the generators in the PJM region of the mid-Atlantic and Midwest failed because of the extreme cold weather, bringing the grid uncomfortably close to a blackout. Gas plant igniter equipment froze, other gas equipment broke down, coal piles froze, and, critically, gas fuel was diverted from power plants to homes and businesses for heating.
After Texas gets through this week’s mess, its grid operator—the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT—and other regulators will do the inevitable post-mortem and identify the lessons learned from the crisis. There is no question that it will need to improve the performance of gas power plants in times of cold weather. Plants designed to run in mostly warm weather will need protective buildings, insulation, and other cold weather protections. Plus, uninsulated pipelines and wellheads can freeze up and slow or stall gas delivery. That happened in Texas. This, from a state that flares more gas from its wells than households in Texas consume in gas yearly.
PJM also benefitted from something Texas doesn’t have, which is strong transmission links to adjoining regions. That lack of connection is costing Texas big-time during this cold spell. By choice, most of Texas (other than the east near Louisiana and a small part of the west) is a virtual electrical island.
What’s the benefit of this separation (at least as Texans see it)? Without interstate grid ties, the Texas grid avoids regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the power grid in the rest of the mainland U.S. But that independence comes at a price: When the grid is stressed, Texas can’t share power with the neighboring grids of the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). Such power-sharing almost certainly would have reduced the wide scope and magnitude of power outages in Texas this week; it certainly is helping SPP and MISO to manage the crisis. (Notably, while those two grids have suffered some outages, they are far less severe than in Texas.)
The ability to tap electricity from across state lines is key to ensuring that Texas can get the electricity it needs when there’s the next cold snap—or hurricane, or summer heat wave, or whatever comes next.
Increasing efficiency and other demand side options
The flip side of accessing more power generation is a more flexible demand side. During ordinary times, customers should be encouraged and rewarded for smart power use—say dialing down the temperature on hot water heaters temporarily or cutting off charging of the electric vehicle in the garage at peak times. During emergencies, grid operators should be able to call on customers who have committed to reduce power. And, if need be, utilities should have fine grained control over shutoffs to ensure the most vulnerable are protected from blackouts. A smarter grid is a more resilient grid.
Likewise, improving energy efficiency remains vitally important. In Texas, highly energy inefficient buildings with poor insulation and window glazing helped to drive mind-boggling demand surges over a very cold week across the entire state. The simplest way to curb demand in times of emergencies is to make homes, buildings, and appliances more efficient; less demand overall means less demand when emergency strikes.
Cleaner and reliable
In the longer term, the cleaner, reliable solution will be to wean Texas and the country off of gas and electrify the economy with renewable energy. As Texas is now showing, and as we see elsewhere in the country, we risk over-dependence on carbon-emitting gas for power and heating.
While some wind turbines did freeze up, they were not a large factor in the crisis. About 80 percent of the power outages in Texas were caused by systems that rely on gas, coal, or uranium, which provide about three-quarters of the state’s electricity. Just as with other power plants, wind turbines can be weatherized to perform well in cold temperatures, as they do in Canada, Sweden and, for that matter, Iowa.
Wind and solar power function as a reliable part of an integrated energy system of resources, including storage and thermal resources, and an interconnected grid. Even now, wind is the largest single resource in the Great Plains-based Southwest Power Pool (SPP), which suffered only comparatively small power outages in comparison to Texas this week. In other words, even if my home solar panel is generating zero energy because it’s after dark, I am still receiving power from wind, hydro, conventional power, storage, and other resources large and small all plugged into the grid.
It would be the height of folly to bow to the pleas of the fossil industry, especially the near-dead coal lobby, and return to the coal era. A more resilient, cleaner, and affordable grid is possible without needing the crutch of the very fuel causing the climate crisis. With the right planning and policy choices, we can do better than holding much of the system together with virtual duct tape and bailing wire.