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Texas flunks climate change test as its energy grid freezes up – CBS News

Four days after a massive snowstorm pummeled Texas, the state is still struggling with an unprecedented and deadly blackout. Nearly 3 million people in the state were without power on Wednesday morning while nuclear facilities, natural-gas plants and wind farms stood frozen.

Although the storm was unique in its record-setting cold temperature, experts warn that such extreme weather events are only becoming more common in the era of global warming. Across the U.S., states like Texas are largely unprepared for a range of climate emergencies, from Arctic-like cold in warmer regions to widespread flooding, droughts, wildfires and other symptoms of a rapidly heating planet.

“This is a large-scale emergency,” said Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re seeing the consequences of insufficiently considering climate impact on the grid. At the same time as grid operators underestimated potential for peak demand … they also insufficiently estimated potential for outages.” 

Fossil-fuel failure

While energy grids can typically handle large swings in consumer demand, the surge caused by the storm that struck Texas was outside even the most pessimistic projections of its grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). At the same time, intense cold in the region caused power production to seize up. 

Analysts put much of the blame for the blackouts in Texas on natural gas facilities, which provide just over a third of power in the state and heats about 40% of its homes. 

“By far the biggest outages have come from our natural gas plants,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. “A portion were down for scheduled maintenance. Others weren’t designed to operate reliably in extreme cold weather, and others haven’t been able to get enough natural gas supply.”

The sub-freezing temperatures stopped production at gas fields in Texas and Oklahoma while damaging pipelines that transport natural gas over long distances. All told, 40% of Texas’ natural gas capacity was offline over the weekend just as millions of residents were relying on it most to warm their homes. 

That number was double the number of outages that ERCOT had planned for in a worst-case scenario, according to Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University.

Other Texas power generators also were hit by the wintry weather. A nuclear reactor in South Texas failed; several coal plants shut down, and wind turbines froze over or were turned off to protect them from the cold. Snow and ice also downed transmission lines, further snarling the system. “Networks also fail in extreme weather,” Jenkins tweeted.

Get used to the polar vortex 

The polar vortex, a weather pattern that originates in the Arctic, is increasingly descending to lower latitudes. Scientists say global warming caused by humans is partly responsible for shifts that bring glacial weather to more southern climes and keep it around longer.

But preparing Texas’ grid for frigid weather would be a drastic change for an energy system designed for peak strain in sweltering August. 

Austin mayor on subfreezing temperatures 02:51

“There are other parts of the country where this type of weather is just a normal Tuesday, and they can deal with it,” said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin.  

“We don’t insulate our houses down here as well as they do up north,” said Rhodes, who spoke with CBS MoneyWatch from a friend’s residence after his own home lost power. “We don’t winterize our pipes as well as they do up north because we so rarely, if ever, need them to be [frost-resistant]. Now maybe we do need to.”

“Texas is an island”

The added insulation and hardware that comes with preparing a grid for extreme weather could be costly. Another solution could be to import power from neighboring states. Currently, Texas operates its own electrical grid, separate from the bulk of the continental U.S. That means it can’t import power when crisis strikes.

“Texas is an island,” Rhodes said. “There are parts in the Northeast that have plenty of power right now — they just can’t get it to us.”

Research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that connecting the primary U.S. electrical grids would make it easier for the country to handle localized outages by sharing power across regions. It would also make it much cheaper to reach decarbonization goals. 

El Paso, Texas, which is on a different grid than the rest of the state, largely kept its power on despite seeing the same bone-chilling temperatures. About 3,000 electricity customers had an outage lasting less than five minutes, CBS 4 reported. And while the Great Plains and Midwest also saw rolling blackouts, they were far smaller than in Texas, in part because the grid in the Midwest was able to pull electricity from a grid in the East, according to the American Council on Renewable Energy.

“During the height of power outages this holiday weekend, over 5 million Midwestern homes saw their lights stay on due to seven gigawatts (GW) of electricity shared from a regional grid in the East,” ACORE said in a statement. “Building out more high-capacity interregional lines is an essential part of the effort to ensure grid reliability in an era of climate change.”

No backup 

Some analysts also blame the massive blackout on Texas’ unique energy market. Unlike most other U.S. energy markets, where some power generation is kept on hand as a backup, power producers in Texas are paid only for the electricity they produce and sell. The backup power setup, called a capacity market, “will pay some plants to just exist, to be there in case they are needed,” Rhodes said. This weekend’s power failures are likely to bring back calls for capacity markets.

Bill Gates calls for eliminating emissions 32:02

Still, given how gas and coal plants have struggled during the cold snap, even having extra generating capacity on hand likely wouldn’t have prevented the extensive blackouts, Rice University’s Cohan told CBS MoneyWatch.

“There have been arguments that fossil fuels are necessary for resilience. I think this shows that that’s an argument that needs to be interrogated,” said McNamara of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She is one of many energy experts who are advocating for more distributed power generation as a way to hedge against inevitable extreme weather events.

Preparing for the future

In a future likely to feature more destructive storms potentially causing more damage to infrastructure, some power outages are inevitable, experts warn. Rather than relying on centralized large power plants, they advocate investing in backup power in the form of battery storage run by utilities and individual homes. 

In such a scenario, if a central power plant stops operating, each neighborhood or block could have a source of power and heat for emergencies.

“The power will go out, but it’s the magnitude of the outage and the duration of the outage that has such an impact and consequences for people at the end of the line,” McNamara said. 

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