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Winter weather in Texas and the importance of infrastructure resilience investment

Texas is reeling from the impacts of a sustained, record-breaking cold weather event for the second time in about a decade. It’s the latest example of the impacts of climate change striking here and now. And with that, comes the need to develop resilience measures to lessen impacts from future events that could be even more severe.

In recent years, we’ve seen increased frequency and intensity of potentially climate-related events like polar vortex storms in Texas, wildfires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and heat waves and droughts in the Southwest. In addition to addressing the causes of these events (mitigating carbon emissions), it is necessary to prevent and prepare for the future impact of these events (adaptation and resilience).

Bill Magness, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), said without the implementation of rolling blackouts, the state’s energy grid could have been just minutes away from a catastrophic failure that would have led to “an indeterminately long crisis.” ERCOT also announced this week that five of its 16 board members, all of whom do not live in Texas, will be resigning their positions.

How did the situation in Texas deteriorate so rapidly? ERCOT’s disaster preparedness scenarios failed to predict the increase in demand for electricity that resulted from the precipitous drop in temperature last week as people tried to heat their homes. Meanwhile, natural gas pipelines, thermal power plants, wind turbines, and other critical energy infrastructure were forced offline due to sub-freezing temperatures. Altogether, the combination of an unprecedented demand spike and unavailability of adequate supply led to the crisis.

The problem is not that electricity supply technologies don’t work in cold weather. All the technologies that failed in Texas successfully operate in extreme cold conditions elsewhere, like Iowa and Minnesota. The difference is that the infrastructure in colder climates is hardened, or made more resilient, to cold weather. That didn’t happen in Texas, but it’s what needs to happen to prevent this situation from happening again.

In the coming months, the Texas’ legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives are slated to investigate the causes of the energy system failures. However, assigning blame is not as important as addressing a more pressing problem: If scientists think that more frequent and intense winter storms will reach regions unprepared for them, how do we make sure we are prepared for the worst to come?

Developing a resilient energy infrastructure includes ensuring that energy is produced by diverse sources. Too much reliance on any one source to produce electricity can lead to major problems like we saw in Texas. For instance, relying too much on natural gas presents challenges like ensuring continuous delivery of fuel to facilities, when there is competition from building heating. There was also a lack of fuel because of reduced production in Texas’ largest natural gas reserve, the Permian Basin, due to the same extreme weather conditions. Because much of the United States still relies heavily on natural gas to ensure reliable electricity in all conditions, hardening fossil fuel infrastructure is crucial.

The wide-ranging impacts of climate change mean that communities must consider the potential for new threats from erratic weather and a warming climate. C2ES defines resilience as “the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate.” As weather events continue to worsen, building an energy system with the ability to respond in real time to weather disasters can mean the difference between a momentary blip in services and a prolonged crisis resulting in lives lost due to lack of access to heat and water.

In 2018, C2ES published Resilience Strategies for Power Outages, which addressed some of the ways utilities and governments can better prepare for these events. The report concludes that multiple approaches can improve the resilience of power systems, which can, in turn, help prevent future failures. The brief discusses infrastructure hardening, deploying smart grids, focusing on distributed generation (such as microgrids, solar and storage, co-generation, and electric energy storage), and improving preparedness, outreach, and documentation. Had these strategies been enacted in Texas, it would have looked like this:

  • High-voltage wires would be hardened, meaning burying the lines (where practical), reinforcing transmission poles, or building poles with stronger materials (i.e., concrete), ensuring that high winds would not disrupt electricity transmission and distribution.
  • Natural gas pipelines would be insulated to withstand colder temperatures, buried to a greater depth (where practical), which would prevent freezing and blockages.
  • Power generation facilities would be winterized so that they can withstand extended periods of below-freezing temperatures.
  • Energy companies would invest in expanding storage and diversifying production from electricity sources.

After a similar winter storm in 2011, ERCOT and the city of El Paso took different approaches to system failures: El Paso, whose grid is connected to western states, addressed and implemented some of the recommendations from a post-mortem on how Texas’ grid can be prepared for a future winter storm event. ERCOT, however, did not. El Paso’s energy provider invested $4.5 million in winterizing old electricity generation facilities and designed new plants to withstand sub-freezing temperatures. It also seems that El Paso’s electricity connection to the Western United States grid prevented the need to implement rolling blackouts. Preparations are needed to prevent a repeat of this disaster. If Texas insists on going it alone for electricity distribution, it must invest in resilience to future extreme weather.

Texas has the opportunity now to make infrastructure investments it missed in 2011. This includes grid hardening, winterizing facilities, deploying a more diverse range of energy sources, and prioritizing coordination of resources and resilience and emergency preparedness plans across cities and all levels of government. California’s failure to invest in its infrastructure contributed to the devastation from massive and intensifying wildfires, and Texas’ failure to invest in winterization led to this energy crisis. We do not know where the next crisis will take place, but if developing a resilient power system becomes a priority, the critical infrastructure we rely on will be available when we need it the most.

 

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