Photo: Chengyue Lao / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images
Texans know how to predict 110 degree weather, but 10 degree weather? Not really. This has been painfully evident over the past six days as the Lone Star State suffers its worst winter in decades. The entire state has been plunged into record high temperatures, creating icy roads, followed by heavy snowfall – even on the beaches of Galveston on the warm Gulf Coast – and cities in Texas lack the infrastructure to manage it. South and central Texas, where winter conditions are rarer, are particularly poorly equipped.
With everyone inside and turning up the heat, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that manages the state’s electricity grid, has been forced to declare power outages, some of which are still in effect, to relieve the network. (About 60 percent Texans heat their homes with electricity.) Between these and multiple grid outages, as many as 4 million people have lost electricity in the state. It is unlikely to warm up until the weekend.
How the hell did it get so cold in Texas, all of you?
Arctic air is typically trapped around the North Pole by a counterclockwise jet stream called a polar vortex. But rapid warming over the pole in early January disrupted the vortex and dislodged some of Earth’s colder air, first leading to huge snowfall in the northeast and sending now air from Siberia on top of the Earth and all the way to the Gulf. from Mexico.
Is it because of climate change?
Given that this is all due to the rapid warming of the Arctic and the poles are warming much faster than the rest of the planet, it’s easy to assume that the bizarre winter we find ourselves in is due to global warming. . But scientists warn that it’s difficult to draw a straight line between climate change and a single weather event. There have been, however, some research link polar air discharge to climate change.
What happened to the juice?
Power supply is one of many systems in Texas built for heat but not cold. Natural gas, which provides Texans with more than 60 percent of their electricity during the winter, shut down when pipes and wellheads froze. Wind turbines, which produce about 10 percent of the state’s winter power, froze and came to a standstill. Solar panels also produce less.
ERCOT’s forecast for this winter predicted capacity of 83,000 megawatts and peak demand of 57,699 megawatts. All of the individual outages took more than half of that capacity – 46,000 megawatts on Wednesday – offline. At the same time, Texans are all indoors right now and increasing the heat, resulting in a record winter demand of 69,150 megawatts. It can be manageable in the summer, when energy providers are ready for everyone to run their air conditioning, but it’s a heavier lift in the winter. Record demand coupled with the supply shock has distorted the entire system.
But the lights are already coming back, aren’t they?
In certain places. As of Wednesday morning, 2.8 million Texans were without power, so the situation is better than it was but still quite bad. It is also still very cold and new problems are emerging. Over the past two days, the power situation has actually worsened: 34,000 megawatts were offline on Monday, and that figure has risen to 46,000 today. Texas Gas Service has warned the areas it covers – Austin, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley – that outages could last for another day, adding that residents should try to limit their energy use. Austin Energy said Wednesday morning that “two emergency events” will cause further blackouts that could extend into the rest of the week. CenterPoint Energy, which serves southern and eastern Texas, also told residents to expect more blackouts.
So why do we hear so much about these wind turbines instead of frozen gas pipelines?
After the storm, Republicans almost immediately clung to pictures of frozen wind turbines as an example of the left’s allegedly failed green energy policies. The Wall Street Journalof editorial page castigated the “liberals” for deep red Texas deprioritizing coal in favor of wind power, even as the newspaper’s own reporting debunked it with a story titled “Don’t blame the wind for the electricity problems in Texas.” Stopping the wind turbines accounted for less than 13% energy that has been offline since last week.
The problem is elsewhere. Texas operates almost entirely on its own power grid, one of three in the continental United States. (The rest of the country is more or less divided along the Rocky Mountains between the Eastern Interconnect and the Western Interconnect.) That’s because in 1935, Texas – then and now fond of secessionist impulses – took steps to avoid federal regulations that cover the transmission of electricity between states. While this is a point of pride among Texans whose sole political goal is to own the libs on Twitter, it is much more difficult for them to pin down their energy issues to anyone but themselves. But they’re still trying. Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has passed the buck to the private sector, saying, “The people who have failed in electricity are the private power generation companies.”
Who is really responsible for this?
Regulations governing the two power grids that supply the rest of the country reward power plants that create additional capacity for periods of excess demand. Texas does not, and the state has reached dangerously low levels of reserve electricity in 2018 and 2019. The State lawmakers call for inquiries, but that would likely lead to scrutiny of the policies they openly support. And, admittedly, reforms to winterize state power systems could be costly and potentially unnecessary given that it was what could reasonably be described as an anomalous weather event.
However, submitting to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulations, like the rest of the country is doing, could ensure that Texas has emergency plans and sufficient reserve power to allow its residents to get through the next. surprise event. And while Republicans mindlessly oppose energy sources that don’t destroy the ecosystem, it’s actually good to have multiple generation methods available – including even coal – so that if one fails for some reason, others are available.
While it’s natural to want to blame someone for the problem – the shortcomings in the system are very real – a lot of it really comes down to the simple fact of a one-time event in a generation that is difficult to prepare for. Sometimes the Lord just wants to test how your power is handled, all of you.
Is this exclusively Texan power grid good?
Having your own grid may give Texans one less headache from the federal government – and, under normal circumstances, tends to lower utility bills – but the stand-alone approach of the State energy infrastructure certainly has its drawbacks. Interstate energy trading could have helped fill some of the electricity shortage this week. Ironic, really, in America’s No. 1 power producer.
But touting the benefits of an independent network is a moot point when you don’t regularly invest and maintain the network in question. Ed Hirs, an energy researcher at the University of Houston, believes that the free market approach taken by Texas leads to lower returns for energy suppliers and therefore less resources to keep their factories up to date. Perhaps the most damning analogy – to a Texan anyway – came from Hirs in Houston. The Chronicle: “The ERCOT network collapsed in exactly the same way as the former Soviet Union. He limped along with underinvestment and neglect until he finally broke under foreseeable circumstances.
Could the same be happening in New York?
It is less likely but not out of the question. There are parallels between the energy systems of Texas and New York. New York’s independent system operator like ERCOT manages the energy flow, and the two states use a variety of energy sources, but derive the majority of natural gas. (For the rest, New York is filling up with hydroelectric and nuclear power where Texas uses the wind.)
But there are also important differences. New York, being on the Eastern Interconnection, may receive electricity from other parts of the country in an emergency – or be the victim of crises elsewhere. In 2003, a power line shorted by a tree in Ohio led to the cascading disaster that left 50 million people on the East Coast black. Prior to that, reliability standards were voluntary. Subsequently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – which does not oversee the grid only in Texas – made these standards a requirement.
The most important variable remains the weather. New York experiences extreme weather conditions in both winter and summer, so its network is designed to cope with both heat and cold. There are, however, events that are quite far from the norm, like Superstorm Sandy in 2012, that will still be able to cause disruption. With climate change accelerating the frequency of extreme weather events, it is only a matter of time before New York City is struck by one defying its system.