on February 22nd, 2021

While the state of Texas scrambles to restore power to millions of people, questions are beginning to arise about how the state was so ill-equipped for last week’s disastrous blackouts and what can be done to ensure this does not happen again.  

Many factors led to the history making power outage, and officials are already calling for investigations into the devastating chain of events.  

The storm dumped snow and ice across the Midwest and South, taking power production offline as consumers turned up the heat to combat the freezing temperatures.  

And no power source was immune. Coal, natural gas, crude, wind, and solar production all plummeted. The outages were concentrated in Texas as the grid was forced to load shed, unable to keep up with the increased demand. At peak, 4.7 million people were in the dark, costing some people their lives.  

Why did so much of Texas lose power? 

Two critical things happened concurrently in Texas, a state that does not commonly deal with arctic weather.  

  1. There was a record demand for power to keep warm 
  1. That coincided with a loss of power generation from plants that were not equipped to deal with the extreme cold 

The catastrophic combination led the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid, to administer rolling blackouts to avoid a grid failure.  

Bill Magness, chief executive of ERCOT, told the Dallas Morning News they were minutes, if not seconds, away from a complete blackout. Essentially everything about their energy system failed miserably.  

Texas’s power grid is infamous for its independence. Its self-contained grid is powered almost entirely in-state with limited import ability, thereby allowing the system to avoid federal oversight.  

Therefore, there is no way to contract power supply to meet the high demand periods. There are no mandates or penalties compelling generators to make supply available when its needed, or to cold-proof their equipment for storms.  

As the snow begins to melt and the lights come back on, answers remain hard to come by. However, what is clear is that Texas was not prepared for an extreme weather event. The storm has highlighted just how vulnerable energy systems are to climate change, and how close it all came to crashing down.  

Looking forward to the future 

These failures should not be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

American is expected to see more extreme weather events in the coming decades and, in turn, cause more of these devastating blackouts. Furthermore, the alternative is not much better.  

In California, the warming climate has increased the likelihood of power lines causing wildfires. So Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which manages the California grid, has issued rolling blackouts to prevent these fires.  

That is why experts argue America needs to build a more resilient grid that can recover from these disasters much more quickly. This opens several questions about the need for grid interconnections, smart grid technology, new infrastructure investments and increasing support for renewable energy deployment. More responsiveness and adaptability in the entire system is needed to be prepared for the next extreme weather crisis. 

In the case of Texas, any response, whether it involves making it smarter, or connecting it to the rest of country, needs to start happening soon. Last week’s events are a jarring reminder to prepare for the unexpected in a warming world.  

Cleaner and reliable 

In the longer term, the cleaner, reliable solution will be to wean Texas and the country off gas and electrify the economy with renewable energy. As Texas is now showing, over-depending on carbon-emitting gas for power and heating is risky business.  

While some wind turbines did freeze up, they were not a large factor in the crisis. About 80% 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 even 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. 

With the right planning and policy choices, Texas can do better than holding much of their system together with virtual duct tape. 

Gain skills and knowledge in the latest advanced technologies in power generation through renewable energy technologies with EIT’s 52859WA Graduate Certificate in Renewable Energy Technologies.  

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