Texas Power Outages Stem from Energy Shortfall, but Unique Factors Contribute

by | Feb 18, 2021

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The simple explanation for the Texas power blackouts — which left a few million residents without power at its peak and which was still affecting half a million people as of Thursday morning — was a shortfall in energy: as a winter storm battered the state, some sources of electricity like thermal plants powered by natural gas went offline, while demand for the energy they produce went up.

To deal with the increase in demand at a time when production was down, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) cut power in swaths; these rolling blackouts were meant to limit the amount of time any particular area was without power, according to Business Insider

But the simple explanation ignores several factors that are unique to Texas, points out Yale Climate Connection. Most of the state’s power grid is separate from the rest of US grids, due to a “decades-old bid to avoid interstate regulation.” This reduces the flexibility of the state’s grid. Another factor is the state’s dependence on production rather than storage, which leaves the grid at risk when natural gas lines freeze up and which can lead to significant price spikes during weather outages, according to the article.

Wind Turbines Were Not the Culprit

Some conservative groups and lawmakers, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R, blamed the blackouts on wind turbines that went offline, saying that when “wind and solar shut down,” Texas was thrust into “a situation where it was lacking power [on] a statewide basis,” writes Smart Cities Dive.

Misinformation on social media spread the claim. On Facebook, for example, the Texas Public Policy Foundation — which has more than 300,000 followers  is using paid advertising to blame green energy for the state’s current problems, according to London-based think tank InfluenceMap. One ad states that people should “Thank Fossil Fuels”  for keeping them warm. Another from the foundation says Texas has “closed reliable fossil fuel electric generation and replaced it with wind projects that failed.”

However, according to ERCOT, the shut down of wind turbines is the least significant factor in the power blackouts. He also said low natural gas pressure has been an issue.

As Risk Increases, So Must the Reliability of Our System…

As more of the economy becomes reliant on electricity, and the grid continues to integrate more low-carbon renewable resources, we must change the way we assess the reliability of our system, says the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In a recent report on the impact of extreme weather events on the grid, EPRI concluded that grid operator planning processes, including resource adequacy planning, typically don’t consider extreme climate scenarios that a resilient grid must be able to handle. Traditional planning processes do not represent how resources actually perform under extreme conditions, the report states.

Also, existing grid supply and delivery assets must be hardened for climate change scenarios regardless of generation — taking into account both renewables and fossil fuels. “Extreme weather events have adversely impacted all generation types, some more than others, relative to the output that was expected in the ERCOT resource adequacy planning,” says Dr. Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of EPRI. He adds that broader interconnection with other systems through new transmission will increase access to diverse resources and fuel supplies and is a critical piece of a resilient grid that accommodates more low-carbon resources.

Insufficient Infrastructure

The state’s infrastructure was not designed to handle freezing conditions, says Paul Sankey, an oil analyst at Sankey Research (via Bloomberg). “This is an energy crisis that very few in the market, certainly outside Texas and Oklahoma, realize.”

The Texas situation highlights the region’s reliance on natural gas, which couldn’t keep up with the demand for heat and electricity caused by the low temperatures. “Adding more renewable energy sources to the grid and winterizing infrastructure are key to preventing this in the future,” Will Jolley, director of technical sales at LevelTen Energy, told Environment + Energy Leader. “Getting renewable energy to the metropolitan areas where it’s needed the most will require transmission and infrastructure improvements, which will take time, but as this crisis has highlighted, these are critical investments.”

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