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How extreme cold turned into an energy crisis in the United States

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A polar vortex – a belt of winds that keep bottled cold in the Arctic – warped and released record-breaking cold in much of the seized U.S. gas pipelines, wind turbines froze, and frozen water vapor forced the shutdown of oil wells even as homes and businesses increased demand for heat to record levels. Prices for heating fuels, including fuel oil and natural gas, have jumped. Demand for propane hit a 17-year high. Wholesale electricity prices in Texas have skyrocketed to $ 9,000 per megawatt hour, the maximum allowed in the market. Spot prices for natural gas hit $ 1,250 per million UK thermal units before falling back to $ 4, in line with the previous week’s prices.

2. So the weather was to blame?

More directly, yes, but more finger pointing began immediately. Some have blamed the green transition to wind power, as many frozen turbines have stopped spinning. Others said Texass’s deregulated electricity market, unique in the country, has allowed companies to skimp on maintenance and upgrades. Some power plants that weren’t completely inclement weather were shut down, wiping out production capacity. Some have blamed Ercot, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of energy to consumers.

Partially. Icing on wind turbine blades was a real problem, and wind accounts for nearly a quarter of state supplies. But the cold has ravaged the region’s entire energy complex, crippling both fossil and renewables, and wind farm output has actually exceeded expectations on some days. As for Ercot, his authority is somewhat limited. In 2011, the last time freezing weather caused bearing failures, it released best practices for power generators, but it couldn’t demand anything, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, an advocacy group. Texas does not have the long range planning processes that other parts of the country employ. The deregulated and competitive nature of the Texan market makes massive price increases possible.

4. What turned off the lights?

With so much power offline, Ercot and the Southwest Power Pool – which runs the grid for West Texas and all or part of 13 other states – had little choice but to implement outages. electricity to protect networks from total collapse. (In the past three decades, Texas has resorted to such a drastic measure only four times.) The Midcontinent’s independent system operator, which manages the flow of electricity in 15 states, has also ordered such cuts. power lines controlled in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Southeast Texas. .

5. How is the Texas system different?

The state does not run so-called capacity markets like other parts of the country. These markets act like insurance policies, whereby power producers are paid to ensure that their supplies will be available when consumers need them during the hottest and coldest days. If they don’t show up, they face heavy penalties. The network that covers much of the eastern United States operates a market like this, for example. Texas is also home to the most competitive electricity market in the country, where people switch suppliers of electricity like credit cards. It’s a fierce business, and as a result, electricity providers are offering insanely low tariffs and incentives to new customers. This can defeat them during extreme events like this if they are not properly hedged against a spike in wholesale energy prices.

6. How could this crisis change the energy landscape?

The crisis reinforces the need for policymakers and regulators to think carefully about what a world entirely dependent on electricity for lighting, cooling, heating, cooking, and transportation would look like under extreme circumstances. The same risks were in full view last year when California, America’s largest electric car market and one of the largest in the world, suffered power outages caused by intense heat waves and fires. forest. The solutions offered include large-scale batteries that back up power plants; larger and more regionalized electricity networks; and smaller, more localized microarrays capable of operating on their own in times of crisis. Some policymakers in Washington have argued that this dependence means that it is essential to preserve coal and nuclear power stations as so-called staple resources that are available to operate around the clock. The issue is becoming more urgent. because climate change will only cause more extreme weather conditions. This not only means extreme heat, but also extreme cold.

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