Data Dump: Texas Turmoil

What the current catastrophe tells us about the electrical grid

By now you’ve surely heard that a severe cold snap has swept across Texas, leading to widespread power outages and mass woe. And unless you’re living in a hole, you’ve heard the fossil-fuel fetishists blaming renewable energy for the whole mess—since Texas is a leader in wind energy generation, the argument goes, wind-power must be the culprit. Maybe you’ve even heard senators engaging in pretzel logic to pin the whole thing on the Green New Deal.

It’s all a bunch of bunk, to put it mildly. 

The lesson we can learn from Texas is not that wind power is unreliable, or that clean energy will lead to blackouts, or even that fossil fuels and nuclear—which, by the way, supply 75 percent of Texas’s electricity—are entirely to blame. It’s that our electricity grid,* built around fossil fuels, is woefully inadequate to handle a transitioning energy landscape and a changing climate. 

The electrical grid is a gargantuan, complex machine—a quasi-organism, even—made up of myriad generators causing electrons to shimmer through arteries of wire to millions of gizmos across the land. It’s fair to say that the grid runs modern society, and without it that society would collapse. That dependency has spurred fears that terrorists will take it all down via electromagnetic pulse, or send a highly trained force of suicidal squirrels to burrow simultaneously into nine critical high-voltage transformers and trigger a coast-to-coast blackout while also frying themselves—and “civilization”—into oblivion

But until that happens, the biggest threat to the grid lies in the overarching principle that governs it: collective electricity use on any single grid must equal total generation at all times. If demand outstrips supply, or vice versa, it can lead to disaster. And the biggest threat to the demand-supply balance is the weather, especially of the extreme kind. Which brings us back to Texas. 

It got cold in Texas this month, colder—in the words of Tom Waits—than a well-digger’s ass. While Minnesota or Colorado’s San Luis Valley are almost always chillier than a borehole excavator’s nether regions, and the houses insulated accordingly, such frigidity is less common in Texas. So when the mercury went down, people cranked up their electric heaters far more than usual, increasing demand, or load, on the power grid. 

Meanwhile, electricity supply, or generation, was faltering due to the cold. Un-winterized wind turbines iced up**, components on a nuclear plant and gas plants froze, and natural gas plants were unable to get enough fuel (due to the fact that residents were using a lot of the fuel for heating). The supply-demand/generation-load balance was tipped and the grid went on the fritz. At least five million people were without power at one time and water treatment plants and other infrastructure failed en masse. The death toll continues to mount; some have been killed by the cold, some from carbon monoxide poisoning after firing up heaters or generators without proper ventilation. 

Had this occurred somewhere besides Texas, the grid operators could have called up a neighboring balancing authority—the name for sub-grids that are part of larger ones—and had them send some more juice. But obstinate individualism and a resistance to federal oversight have kept Texas’s grid isolated and the neighbors’ help at bay. The only way to keep the balance was to “shed load,” or intentionally put people in the dark for a limited period of time. When that wasn’t enough, the system failed. 

Given that the disaster continues to transpire, it would be premature to try to determine exactly which parts of the energy system failed and why. But we can get a pretty good sense of what kinds of things are happening now by looking back to a remarkably similar event that unfolded in early February 2011, when a massive cold front settled over the Southwest, Texas included, causing water pipes to freeze and burst in Phoenix, killing animals in a zoo in Mexico, and wreaking havoc on the fossil fuel-dominated energy infrastructure, taking out power to millions of residences.

Here are just a few examples of how the 2011 event messed with both the electricity grid and the natural gas “grid”:

  • sensing lines at both the Navajo Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant froze, taking out nearly 1,400 megawatts of coal-fired generation during a time when demand was high;

  • in Texas, alone, two coal-fired and 18 natural gas-fired units went offline due to the cold;

  • electrical wires stretched and snapped due to the cold;

  • natural gas production decreased dramatically due to “freeze offs” at the wellheads, frozen compressors, and icy roads that hampered maintenance and water unloading;

  • at least one large natural gas storage facility had problems due to the cold, preventing it from delivering gas to power plants;

  • as power outages hit natural gas processing plants, they were forced to stop processing gas, further diminishing supply;

  • natural gas pressure in pipelines decreased due to heightened demand and reduced supply, decreasing generation at natural gas power plants;

  • at least 50,000 residential and business customers lost their natural gas service during the event, rendering even their gas stoves and water heaters inoperable;

  • wind turbines shut down because their blades iced up or utilities had not equipped them with optional “cold weather packages.”

Nor was the 2011 event the first of its kind, by any means. In 1989 cold-weather caused Texas’s fossil-fueled grid to malfunction in similar ways. In one instance, so many fish froze in a nuclear plant’s cooling pond that they clogged up the water intake, causing the plant to be forced offline (the same plant was shut down due to a frozen line during the current event). 

Hot and dry weather cause at least as many problems for the grid as the cold. When it’s hot, folks crank up the air conditioning, which is a major power suck, increasing demand on the system. Soaring temperatures reduce capacity in transmission lines and cause them to sag and potentially brush up against vegetation, resulting in outages or wildfires, which, in turn, can knock out transmission lines. Smoke from wildfires was so thick last summer that it blotted out the sun and diminished solar power generation in California. Nuclear plants have been forced to shut down because the water used to cool the reactors is too warm, and thermal power plants, whether coal, gas, or nuclear, operate less efficiently when hot. Drought leads to less water in reservoirs which leads to reduced output from hydroelectric plants. 

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Extreme weather, be it hot or cold, drought or flood, hurricane or tornadoes, has the potential to seriously disrupt the power grid and our lives. There are solutions. One would be to act quickly and dramatically to keep the climate crisis from worsening. But in the shorter term, we can focus on overhauling the grid to make it more resilient.

I’ll save the solutions discussion for a future post, but one thing is abundantly clear: The Texas Turmoil can not be blamed on wind power, the demise of fossil fuels, or the Green New Deal. And anyone—particularly elected officials—who peddle such theories are either grossly misinformed, engaging in gross disinformation, or both. They would better serve their constituents by trying to understand what went wrong and learning from the mistakes. But sometimes you gotta wonder whether they are capable of such things.  

After the 1989 cold-weather-related grid failure, officials concluded in their postmortem report that, “the near complete loss of the ERCOT grid brings an awareness that, even in Texas, plant operators must prepare for cold weather emergencies...this awareness of and attention to cold weather problems must be continued.” 

And yet, here we are, 32 years later … 

*The North American power grid is actually made up of three distinct grids: The Eastern Grid, the Western Grid, and ERCOT, or Texas. There is very little connection between the grids, and Texas has remained the most isolated so as to avoid federal regulation. The Western Grid, in turn, is made up of 38 different balancing authorities, each of which operates its own grid. 
**Fun fact: while early reports suggest that wind generation was about one gigawatt less than forecast (and natural gas generation as much as 30 gigawatts below what was needed), solar generation was one gigawatt greater than anticipated because photovoltaics are more efficient in the cold.