How a bitter cold snap is crippling power in Texas

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Millions of Texans have been plunged into darkness as the state’s electric grid strains to provide power during a historic cold spell.

The bone-chilling winter weather is bringing into stark relief the vulnerabilities of the electricity system as over 4 million customers in Texas remain without power Tuesday morning in a state that prides itself as the energy capital of the world.

A cocktail of high power demand, strained gas supply, iced wind turbines and an independent streak that bleeds into how Texas runs its grid has led to widespread and persistent outages stranding people without power to hunker down in their homes as temperatures remain dangerously below freezing.

Much of the situation behind the blackouts remains unknown. But the outages in Texas, coming just months after rolling blackouts roiled California during another extreme weather event, highlight how the changing climate is poised to test the mettle of the power sector — both in Texas and throughout the rest of the country.

The central United States is under a deep freeze. But it’s messing with Texas’s electric grid particularly badly.

Around 34 gigawatts of electricity generation has been forced off the state’s main grid during the cold snap — equal to more than 16 Hoover Dams running at full capacity.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electric load, said thermal power plants, which include gas, coal and nuclear, as well renewables have been adversely affected by the icy weather.

Surging demand for natural gas amid the Arctic blast is driving up prices and making fuel scarce, according to the grid operator. Gas utilities prioritize providing fuel for heating households ahead of selling it to gas-fired power plants.

Texas is also contending with reduced output from its many wind turbines as ice accumulates on blades during the cold, wet weather, grid operators added. Though traditionally associated with the oil and gas industry, the state now leads the nation in wind power generation.

Other power plant infrastructure is vulnerable to the cold, too, if fuel lines crack, water intake systems clog with ice or piles of coal literally freeze over, though it is still unclear what specific problems power plants in Texas are having.

Beyond power generation, snapped tree limbs have downed distribution lines as trees succumb to the unusually bitter cold. And many Texas homeowners, never expecting such a long-lasting freeze, have not insulated their homes like those to the north do — further overworking the grid.

“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” ERCOT president and chief executive Bill Magness said.

True to its nickname, the Lone Star State runs its own self-contained electric grid.

That lets Texas avoid dealing much with the federal government when it comes to its grid. But that gives the state’s grid operator few ways of drawing power from neighboring states during times of extreme energy demand.

“One state over might be doing just fine where Texas could be struggling because there’s no way to move power between those two states,” said Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin.

Overnight, outrages of more than 100,000 customers spread to Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, according to the tracker poweroutage.us. But no state had as many homes without power as Texas.

Record low temperatures brought snow and ice to the lower half of the United States on Feb. 14, resulting in poor road conditions and power outages. (The Washington Post)

The electricity market in Texas is also set up differently from many other states.

While other regions pay power companies to make sure they have generators on call during times of high demand, Texas electricity customers pay only for the power actually provided. That leads to lower prices during normal times, but risks the reliability of the grid when demand for electricity spikes.

The finger-pointing for the power failure in Texas has already started.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson faulted Texas for being “recklessly reliant on so-called alternative energy, meaning windmills” on his program Monday evening. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board piled on, solely blaming “frozen wind turbines” for Texas’s power problems.

But that criticism is misleading. While Texas’s capacity to generate energy from the wind is down with some turbines seized up, most of the power generation offline during the cold spell was supposed to come from traditional thermal plants, Texas’s grid operator said Monday.

It is a redux of what happened in California after a severe heat wave in August pushed California’s grid to the brink, prompting then-President Donald Trump and other Republicans to blame the blue state for shifting away from fossil fuels.

ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm, wrote in a note Monday it expects “at least a few renewable power critics may point to Texas’ woes as reasons to evaluate, if not temper, the transition toward cleaner intermittent resources.”

The firm, however, added it doesn’t expect Texas lawmakers to “adopt measures that would meaningfully undermine” renewables, now a major industry in Texas.

In the end, Texas designed a grid to handle surging summer heat — not blisteringly cold winters.

In New England, for example, gas-fired generators can switch to burning oil if gas demand spikes, while wind turbines in the Midwest have systems to de-ice blades, said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor and energy systems engineer at Princeton.

“The regions that are used to this kind of weather have strategies for dealing with it,” he said. “And Texas has not really planned for implementing those strategies.”

As the atmosphere warms due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity, cold snaps have become more rare. But there is evidence the melting of sea ice in the Arctic may coax frigid polar air south and cause severe cold snaps like the one this week, though not all climate scientists agree on that explanation.

“I personally don’t think anyone’s really to blame,” Rhodes said. “This is a black swan event.”

He added now going forward, “I hope we decide to plan for it.”