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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Texas power outages shed light on the importance of reliable power grids

Extreme cold weather conditions caused failure of power plants, leaving Texans without electricity

The devastating conditions in Texas have been broadcasted across the country as Texans have suffered through several crises due to power outages, which stemmed from a series of severe winter storms beginning Feb. 10. Residents have had to go days without adequate heat, electricity and water—some losing their lives due to a lack of these resources. Such events have caused speculations surrounding the winter storm’s potential link to climate change. Yet Matthew Igel, an adjunct professor in the department of land, air and water resources, explained that this may not necessarily be the case.

“There’s some disagreement about the role of climate change in these kinds of events,” Igel said. “Certainly these temperatures are uncommon in Texas, but they’re not unprecedented. It’s not that these kinds of events historically have been impossible, but they are very rare.”

He explained that he is hesitant to attribute this particular snowstorm to climate change, and that similar extreme weather events happened in Texas in the early 1900s and in 1985. For this snowstorm in particular, he explained that the polar vortex—cold air trapped in the arctic—became unstable due to a pattern in the atmosphere known as blocking. Igel elaborated that air began to build up over the Pacific, which led to the slowing down of the polar vortex. This created an instability that allowed the cold air from the polar vortex to migrate toward the Southern U.S. 

“It’s easy to think of cold air trapped at the arctic as like a spinning top,” Igel said. “So when a spinning top spins really fast, it’s nice and stable. It doesn’t move. But when a top starts to slow down, it can start to wobble.”

Although there is some evidence that how much the polar vortex wobbles may increase as the world grows warmer, this is still a growing field of research. Though these recent events may not necessarily shed light directly on climate change, they do highlight another area in need of change: power grids. 

When extreme cold temperatures hit Texas, the state’s power plants were unable to continue operations. According to an article by the New York Times, out of natural gas, coal, nuclear and wind power plants, natural gas production was affected the most. The article further explained that, simultaneously, demands for electricity increased past estimations, forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to initiate controlled power outages. 

“Electricity systems need to balance supply and demand every second or it can result in complete grid collapse that can take weeks to recover from,” said James Bushnell, an economics professor, via email. “In order to prevent the total collapse, ERCOT, the system operator in Texas, started rotating blackouts. The supply shortfall was so massive that up to half of all demand had to be curtailed at some points.”

Keith Taylor, an assistant economic development specialist in cooperative extension in the Department of Human Ecology, explained that there were multiple causes behind the power outages. One of these causes is that there is no requirement for stockpiled energy resources. While the absence of this requirement helps keep costs down, it also means that the grid is not well prepared for disasters. 

In addition, Texas’ power grid is isolated from the two major American grids, according to Bushnell. For example, California is much more integrated with neighboring states compared to Texas. Although the two states differ in the types of energy they use, both rely on natural gas to sustain operations. Because of this, Taylor explained that since Texas was not able to pull more capacity from the electric grid, it could have pulled more from the natural gas pipelines feeding into Texas if more were connected to other states.

In order to avoid such issues from occurring again, Taylor expressed the need for the weatherization of power generators, along with the hardening of the transmission infrastructure which facilitates the delivery of energy from power plants to consumers. 

“[This event] certainly revealed that all energy sources have an array of vulnerabilities. We need to harden the system for the entire mix of energy sources,” Taylor said.

Although this specific event was concentrated in the Southern U.S., power outages have also occurred in California in conjunction with strong winds and high temperatures this past year. Bushnell expressed that as climate change causes more extreme swings in weather patterns, the swings themselves are expected to increase in severity. 

“The lesson from the last 12 months in both California and Texas is that electricity systems can, in turn, expect larger swings in both demand and available supply as a result,” Bushnell said. “In California, the increasing share of renewable generation creates further correlation between weather and supply, but Texas demonstrates that this correlation can impact natural gas as well.”

Bushnell explained that policymakers should examine the natural gas market and the pipeline systems moving forward. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of reconsidering the way the reliability of electricity systems is assessed. 

“The traditional approach to reliability planning in electricity is to target generation ‘capacity’—that is the maximum a plant can produce if all goes well,” Bushnell said. “As we rely more and more on alternative resources such as renewables, batteries, as well as hydro and even natural gas sometimes, the problem is not one of capacity at all but rather the ability of that capacity to produce electricity when we need it.”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org

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