A record-setting polar vortex, which brought intense cold to a majority of the American heartland, has led to massive blackouts in Texas as significant amounts of generating capacity have been knocked offline. The Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT for short), announced early this morning the need for short-duration rolling blackouts across the Texas grid to balance demand with available supply. Within hours, those short duration blackouts had morphed in to massive outages impacting more than four million residents for hours on end. As of this writing, millions from Houston to Austin still do not have power restored and utilities are advising consumers to be prepared for further outages over the next 24 hours. The Southwest Power Pool, another grid operator in the central United States, has indicated it may begin blackouts of its own shortly.
If this all sounds familiar, its because California went through a similar situation just a few short months ago. Faced with an unprecedented heatwave, residents of the Golden State found themselves losing power for hour-long periods 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 upon electricity imports from neighboring states to balance the load in prior 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 impacting the entirety of the Western United States. The usual route of shoring supplies through electricity imports failed because other states in the region were experiencing the same heatwave, and blackouts were ordered before the entire grid went down.
All indications point to a considerably worse scenario now unfolding in Texas. Despite the uproar, California’s blackouts were modest in nature, with around 500,000 homes and businesses losing power at the height of the blackout period for between 15 minutes and 2.5 hours. Texas, however, appears to be suffering from an unprecedented loss of generating capacity, with early reports pointing to roughly 30 GW of primarily gas-fired capacity offline, representing more than a third of generation capacity in the state. Compounding matters, Texas is the lone state in the lower 48 with its own power grid and has limited ability to import power from neighbors.
While it’s too soon to identify a root-cause for the catastrophe unfolding in Texas, it’s likely that planning failures analogous to California’s are to blame. A cold snap of this severity and longevity was likely not considered by ERCOT or Texas utilities in their resiliency planning scenarios. The failure of such a large portion of the generating fleet suggests that infrastructure designed for less extreme weather was left defenseless to the extreme cold. Equipment is icing, natural gas lines and distribution points are freezing, and fuel supplies are being prioritized elsewhere. Technologies exist to keep the wheels in motion during extreme cold (just ask Minnesota), but the added expense for the cold weather upgrades was likely deemed unjustified in traditionally mild Texas or cost-prohibitive 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 now becoming commonplace. Reliability plans based off similar assumption sets will need to be reworked entirely. Estimates peg the cost of upgrading and modernizing the US grid in the trillions of dollars alone, let alone the trillions more needed to replace fossil-fired assets and build gigawatts of energy storage. These grid failures are wake-up calls and provide further proof that the impacts of climate change are not geographically constrained, nor do they take aim at one political party. One way or another, the cost of climate change on each of us will make itself known: in this both California and Texas can now agree.
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