A record-breaking polar vortex, which brought intense cold to much of the heartland of the United States, led to massive blackouts in Texas as significant amounts of production capacity were taken offline. Texas grid operator the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT for short) announced early this morning the need for short-term power outages to the Texas grid to balance demand and available supply. Within hours, these short-lived outages turned into massive outages affecting more than four millions residents for hours. As of this writing, millions of people from Houston to Austin have still not restored power and utilities are advising consumers to prepare for further blackouts in the next 24 hours. The Southwest Power Pool, another grid operator in the central United States, has indicated he could soon start his own blackouts.
If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s because California went through a similar situation just a few months ago. Faced with an unprecedented heat wave, residents of the Golden State found themselves losing power for hours as the California Independent System Operator (CalISO) struggled to match supply and demand statewide. CalISO had dealt with heat waves in the past and generally called on imports of electricity from neighboring states to balance the load in previous years. But the heat wave that hit California last year was particularly extreme and beyond what scenario planners had ever envisioned: a region-wide event affecting all of Western Canada. United States. The usual route of shoring supply through imports of electricity failed because other states in the region were experiencing the same heat wave and blackouts were ordered before the entire grid failed. fails.
All indications point to a much worse scenario currently unfolding in Texas. Despite the outcry, power outages in California were modest in the wild, with around 500,000 homes and businesses losing power at the height of the power outage period between 15 minutes and 2.5 hours. Texas, however, appears to be suffering from an unprecedented loss of production capacity, with early reports indicating 30 GW of capacity mainly supplied with off-line gas, representing more than a third of the State’s production capacity. To complicate matters, Texas is the only lower 48 state with its own power grid and limited ability to import electricity from neighbors.
While it is too early to identify the root cause of the disaster unfolding in Texas, it is likely that planning failures similar to those in California are to blame. A cold snap of this severity and longevity was likely not factored in by ERCOT or the Texas utilities in their resilience planning scenarios. The failure of so much of the production fleet suggests that infrastructure designed for less extreme weather conditions has been left defenseless in the face of extreme cold. The equipment is icing, natural gas pipes and distribution points are frozen, and fuel supply is prioritized elsewhere. There are technologies to keep the wheels moving during extreme cold (just ask Minnesota), but the extra expense for cold weather upgrades has likely been deemed unwarranted in traditionally mild or prohibitively expensive Texas. in the deregulated Texas electricity market.
As climate change worsens extreme weather events, we should expect more of these failures. Aging infrastructure built around 20th century weather patterns will be continually tested by the more extreme weather conditions that are becoming commonplace. Reliability plans based on sets of similar assumptions will need to be completely reworked. Estimates set the cost of upgrading and modernizing the US grid billions of dollars alone, not to mention the trillions more needed to replace fossil fuel-powered assets and build gigawatts of energy storage. These grid outages are red flags and provide further evidence that the impacts of climate change are not geographically limited, nor are they targeting a single political party. One way or another, the cost of climate change to each of us will make itself known: California and Texas can now get along.
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