What the Texas blackout reveals about America's climate vulnerability

We need a better grid

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Texas has been hammered by the worst winter storm the state has seen in many years, and suffered the state's worst electricity blackout in at least a decade as a result. Over four million people were without power early Tuesday morning, and many were scrambling simply to avoid freezing in bitterly cold temperatures.

For a state that is built to withstand hot summers, and whose leaders had frequently boasted about its abundant energy supplies, the outages came as a shock. But this blackout shows the need for a more resilient, cooperative power grid. Climate disasters like this one will only get worse as global temperatures rise, and unless enormous upgrades are made, this won't be the last time millions of people lose power when they need it most.

Paradoxically, there is a strong case that this cold snap has a lot to do with climate change. Normally during winter, a "polar vortex" tightly circles the North Pole, bounded by the jet stream. But the warming of the Arctic — which is heating up about twice as fast as the rest of the planet — seems to have destabilized that pattern. That leads to what's happening now: Freezing air spills down from the high Arctic, blasted south by an unusually flappy jet stream. (Meanwhile, the Arctic is experiencing extremely warm weather.)

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There is still some dispute over this particular argument among climate scientists, and it may turn out to be mistaken in some way. But we do know for sure that higher temperatures mean more extreme weather in general, which will damage the American power grid in any number of ways. Even if this particular disaster turns out to be unrelated to climate change, future mass power outages will be.

So what exactly caused the blackout? Naturally, many conservatives tried to blame it on Texas' extensive wind power, as reportedly some turbines have iced up in the cold. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson asserted: "The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died."

This is egregiously false. Wind power generation always tends to decline during the winter, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the Texas power grid, plans for this. Indeed, on Monday wind was exceeding its expected output, and though wind output fell on Tuesday, solar was making up much of the difference.

As Princeton engineering professor Jesse Jenkins points out, the real primary culprit was the mass failure of nuclear, coal, and natural gas (or "thermal") power plants. At the peak of the blackout something like 27,000 megawatts of thermal capacity were offline — or nearly 40 percent of Texas's entire thermal capacity. So far it is unclear which plants exactly were down, but it seems that it was mainly natural gas to blame, as pipes were frozen and the extreme cold stoked high demand for gas heating. But the cold also knocked out some coal capacity and at least one nuclear power plant, and also damaged a lot of transmission infrastructure.

That leads to the fundamental reason behind the blackout — the neglected, isolated Texas grid. It is easily possible to operate power infrastructure in extreme cold conditions, one just needs to prepare for it. For instance, wind turbines really can ice up, but this problem can be avoided with electric heating elements. (There have been wind turbines in Antarctica for years.) Similarly, nuclear plants can run in cold temperatures with proper insulation and heating. But thanks in part to deregulation passed in the early 2000s, the state's whole electricity and production system has gone without many needed upgrades or maintenance, as investing in backup capacity or a rugged distribution system would have eaten into profits (and pricing rules make it risky to invest in extra capacity). "The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union," energy analyst Ed Hirs told the Houston Chronicle. "It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances." (To be fair to Texas, it is not the only state that has cheaped out on its power infrastructure.)

That problem is compounded by the fact that ERCOT is largely disconnected from neighboring states. It is entirely contained within Texas (though a few remote regions are part of other grid systems) because the state wanted to avoid federal regulation during the New Deal. Where other states can and do buy large amounts of power from neighbors when disaster strikes, in Texas this is difficult because there are only a few connections to other states and Mexico.

So Texas and the rest of the U.S. are in a tight spot. We must slash our use of fossil fuels to forestall catastrophic damage to human society, very much including weather disasters that knock out basic services. But that means adding a lot of new renewables to the grid, which will require big upgrades. While it's not true that wind power caused this particular blackout, it is the case that semi-erratic renewable power can cause problems for traditional grids — which as we see today, are already vulnerable.

As David Roberts writes in his newsletter Volts, the solution is to connect up the whole country — and neighboring countries as well, ideally — into one big, rugged, modern grid so zero-carbon power can be dispatched from anywhere to anywhere as needed. The discussion quickly gets immensely complicated, but the basic idea is that with some cutting-edge science and engineering, and some smart policy, the grid can accommodate vitally-important zero-carbon power while at the same time being much more tough and resilient.

For instance, during the early morning dark in California, the sun is shining in states to the east, and vice versa at night. Or when the wind is calm in Arkansas, it probably is still blowing in Wyoming. Energy storage can be added to the grid with battery banks, or by using some of the capacity of electric cars, or with pumped hydropower facilities, or many other techniques. Existing long-distance transmission lines can be upgraded with real-time weather data (a slight breeze increases the transmission capacity of a power line by over 40 percent, because it will stay cooler), and the existing fragmented grid can be hooked together with efficient new high-voltage direct current lines. That allows for much more efficient use and transmission of power, and easy compensation if one particular region gets hammered with bad weather. As Roberts writes, "Generally, with grids, the bigger and more interconnected they are, the more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective they are."

All this can be deliberately overbuilt — made tough and able to withstand conditions much worse than the previous worst-case scenario. You never know when a heat wave is going to strike Maine, or a bitter cold snap hit Texas.

Right now Texans need help from their fellow citizens in other states to keep the lights on. But sooner or later other states will need help from Texas. With some money and smart policy, we can build a United States where that power can be delivered immediately, and nobody is left in the dark.

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