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Why Did Texas’s Energy Grid Fail So Spectacularly?

Photo: Chengyue Lao/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Texans know how to plan for 110-degree weather, but 10-degree weather? Not so much. That’s been painfully evident over the past six days as the Lone Star State suffers its worst winter weather in decades. The entire state has been plunged into record-low temperatures, creating icy roads, followed by heavy snow — even on the beaches of Galveston, on the warm Gulf Coast — and cities in Texas don’t have the infrastructure to manage it. Southern and central Texas, where winter weather is rarest, are especially ill equipped.

With everyone inside and cranking up the heat, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit organization that manages the state’s electric grid, was forced to enact rolling blackouts, some of which are still in effect, to provide relief to the grid. (About 60 percent of Texans heat their homes with electricity.) Between those and multiple grid failures, as many as 4 million people lost power across the state. It’s not likely to warm up until the weekend.

How the heck did it get so cold in Texas, y’all?

Arctic air is usually trapped around the North Pole by a counterclockwise jet stream known as the polar vortex. But a rapid warming over the pole in early January disrupted the vortex and dislodged some of the Earth’s coldest air, leading first to huge snowfalls in the Northeast and now sending air from Siberia over the top of the Earth and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Is this because of climate change?

Given that this all originated with rapid warming over the Arctic, and given that the poles are warming much faster than the rest of the planet, it’s easy to assume that the freaky winter we’re in the middle of is all because of global warming. But scientists warn that it’s hard to draw a straight line from climate change to any single weather event. There has, however, been some research tying the release of polar air to climate change.

What happened to the juice?

One of the many systems in Texas that’s built for heat but not cold is energy delivery. Natural gas, which supplies Texans with more than 60 percent of their electricity during the winter, shut down when pipes and wellheads froze. Wind turbines, which produce about 10 percent of the state’s winter power, iced up and stopped. Solar panels have been producing less, too.

ERCOT’s forecast for this winter projected a capacity of 83,000 megawatts and a peak demand of 57,699 megawatts. All the individual failures have taken more than half of that capacity — 46,000 megawatts on Wednesday — offline. At the same time, Texans are all indoors right now and cranking up the heat, leading to a winter record demand of 69,150 megawatts. That might be manageable in the summer, when energy providers are prepared for everyone running their air conditioning, but it’s a heavier lift in the winter. Record demand coupled with the supply shock caused the whole system to buckle.

But the lights are already coming back on, right?

In some places. As of Wednesday morning, 2.8 million Texans were without power, so the situation is better than it was but still pretty bad. It’s also still really cold, and new problems are arising. In the past two days, the power-supply situation has actually gotten worse: 34,000 megawatts were offline Monday, and that figure rose to 46,000 today. Texas Gas Service has warned the areas it covers — Austin, El Paso, and the Rio Grande Valley — that outages could drag on for another day, adding that residents should try to limit their power usage. Austin Energy announced Wednesday morning that “two emergency events” will cause new outages that could drag through the rest of the week. CenterPoint Energy, which serves south and east Texas, also told residents to expect new outages.

Then why are we hearing so much about those wind turbines instead of frozen gas pipelines?

After the storm, Republicans almost immediately latched on to photos of frozen wind turbines as an example of the allegedly failed green-energy policies of the left. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page lambasted “liberals” for deep-red Texas deprioritizing coal in favor of wind energy, even as the paper’s own reporting debunked it with a story titled “Don’t Blame Wind for Texas Electricity Woes.” The shutdown of wind turbines has accounted for less than 13 percent of the energy that’s gone offline since last week.

The problem lies elsewhere. Texas operates almost entirely on its own electric grid, one of three in the mainland United States. (The rest of the country is more or less split along the Rocky Mountains into the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection.) That’s because in 1935, Texas — then and now fond of secessionist impulses — took steps to avoid federal regulation that covers interstate electricity transmission. While this is a point of pride among Texans whose sole political purpose is to own the libs on Twitter, it makes it much harder for them to pin their energy problems on anyone but themselves. But they’re still trying. On Monday, Texas governor Greg Abbott passed the buck to the private sector, saying, “The people who have fallen short with regard to the power are the private power-generation companies.”

Who’s really to blame for this?

The regulations that govern the two electric grids that power the rest of the country reward power plants that build additional capacity for periods of excess demand. Texas does not, and the state hit dangerously low levels of reserve electricity in 2018 and 2019. The state’s legislators are calling for investigations, but those would probably lead to scrutiny of policies they openly support. And, admittedly, reforms to winterize the state’s power systems could be costly and potentially wasteful given that this was what could be reasonably described as a freak weather occurrence.

However, submitting to regulation under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as the rest of the country does, could ensure that Texas has contingency plans and enough reserve power to get its residents through the next surprise event. And while Republicans mindlessly oppose energy sources that don’t destroy the ecosystem, it’s actually good to have multiple generation methods available — including even coal — so that if one fails for whatever reason, others are available.

Although it’s natural to want to blame someone for the problem — the shortcomings in the system are very real — a lot of this really does come down to the simple fact of a once-in-a-generation event that’s hard to prepare for. Sometimes the Lord just wants to test the management of your power supply, y’all.

Is that Texas-only electric grid any good?

Having its own network may provide Texans with one less headache with regard to the Feds — and, in normal times, tend to keep electric bills down — but the state’s go-it-alone approach to energy infrastructure certainly has its drawbacks. Interstate energy trading could have helped make up some of the power shortfall this week. Ironic, really, in the No. 1 energy-producing American state.

But touting the benefits of an independent grid is a moot point when you don’t regularly invest in and maintain the grid in question. Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, believes that the free-market approach Texas takes leads to lower returns for energy providers and thus fewer resources for keeping their plants up to date. Perhaps the most damning analogy — for a Texan anyway — came from Hirs in the Houston Chronicle: “The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union. It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”

Could the same thing happen in New York City?

It’s less likely but not out of the question. There are parallels between Texas and New York’s energy systems. The New York Independent System Operator, like ERCOT, manages the flow of power, and both states use diverse power sources but draw the majority of it from natural gas. (For the rest, New York fills in with hydroelectric and nuclear power where Texas uses wind.)

But there are also key differences. New York, being on the Eastern Interconnection, can receive power from other parts of the country in the event of an emergency — or be the victim of crises elsewhere. In 2003, a power line shorted out by a tree in Ohio led to the cascading disaster that blacked out 50 million people on the East Coast. Before that, reliability standards were voluntary. Afterward, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which does not oversee the Texas-only grid — made those standards a requirement.

The most important variable is still the weather. New York experiences extreme weather in both the winter and the summer, thus its grid is built to deal with both heat and cold. There are, however, some events that are far enough outside the norm, such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012, that will always be able to cause disruption. With climate change accelerating the frequency of extreme weather events, it’s only a matter of time before NYC is hit with one that challenges its system.

Why Did Texas’s Energy Grid Fail So Spectacularly?