Now that the power is back on in Texas, we are entering a phase with investigations of all the systems that failed.
But some of the biggest lessons are already apparent.
Here are some of the things I learned, or relearned:
1. Our power system was built for summer peaks, and that’s part of the reason why things went haywire in Texas.
One of the less discussed aspects of the massive power failure was what it says about the changing patterns of electricity demand, and the challenges that arise from those changes.
In most of the country, electricity demand is highest in July or August, when temperatures are at their hottest and air conditioners are running all day. Grid operators spend much of their time preparing to meet demand on hot days.
But the Texas crisis was an example of a winter peak in electricity demand, which can be more challenging to manage than a summer peak.
Right before the Texas blackouts hit last week, the state’s grid operator, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, said it was expecting that electricity demand would hit an all-time record of more than 76,000 megawatts. In February!
Actual output never reached that record level because power plants started to go offline for a variety of reasons, leading to blackouts.
The main driver of winter peaks is demand from buildings that use electricity for heating. That demand is likely to increase in the coming years as some state and local governments adopt policies to encourage all-electric houses, and as a result, use less gas for heating.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory looked at some of the implications of increasing electrification of housing and other parts of the economy in a 2018 report. One of the findings was that the increase in electric heating would lead to higher winter peaks in electricity demand, with some states, including much of the Northeast, on track to have winter demand that is higher than in the summer.
A winter peak looks different from demand that peaks in summer. There is, for example, the potential for dueling priorities in the gas market, as gas suppliers face high demand from gas utilities for home heating in addition to high demand from gas-fired power plants that generate electric power. This is different from summer, when power plants have less competition in securing their fuel supplies.
Another difference is that solar power is less available in winter, largely because the days are shorter. Solar can still be an important part of planning to meet winter demand, but there is less of it than in summer.
Wade Schauer, research director for power and renewables at Wood Mackenzie said electricity peaks are less predictable in the winter than in the summer. Most summer peaks are in July or August, while winter temperatures can lead to periods of extremely high electricity demand anytime from December to March.
“That winter period is going to be the most challenging time,” he said.
The larger point is that the increase in electricity demand and the changes in the types of power plants are going to lead to other challenges for which grid operators need to be ready.
Part of the answer might be accelerating construction of offshore wind, which shows promise as a year-round performer, to name one of many possibilities.
Regulators and grid operators need to be clear-eyed about how seasonal patterns in electricity demand are changing, and adapt to meeting the increasing needs in the winter while still meeting needs in the summer.
2. Just about everything failed, so be careful blaming any one power source.
Some of the immediate reaction to the power outages was from conservative political leaders, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and media personalities like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who blamed the problem on renewable energy.
Once we began to get more data about what happened, energy systems experts made clear that much of the problem was a failure of natural gas power plants and that any issues with renewables were a smaller concern.
Some environmental advocates have reacted to the data by defending renewable energy and saying that the events in Texas show how gas is unreliable.
Erin Overturf, the Denver-based deputy director of the clean energy program of Western Resource Advocates, said on Twitter that singling out one power source—whether natural gas or renewables like wind and solar—missed the much larger concern.
The conditions in Texas were so extreme that every major source of electricity was affected and this should inspire conversations about the reliability of every technology. Emily Grubert of Georgia Tech touched on this point in our conversation last week, and it’s worth highlighting that again.
But I don’t want to imply an equivalence between the critiques of renewables and gas. Clearly, some of what was said about renewables was way off base, as when Gov. Abbott told Fox News that the failure of wind and solar “thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”
Abbott correctly noted that wind and solar accounted for only about 10 percent of electricity generation in the state. So he also should know that gas accounts for more than 50 percent of the state’s electricity generation, and a substantial drop in output from gas power plants is going to be far more harmful than if wind and solar are underperforming.
Schauer of Wood Mackenzie was one of many observers who found much of the commentary to be at best simplistic, and, at worst, misleading.
“Obviously, the blanket blaming of renewables was a mistake,” he told me. “I would call this the all-of-the-above energy failure.”
3. Just below the surface of Ted Cruz’s scandal was an important message.
One of the sideshows of the Texas crisis was how U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Texas), was caught escaping the misery of power outages with an impromptu family vacation to Mexico. Once his trip was publicized, he rushed back to the state.
His trip helps to show how families with high incomes have the ability to work around weather disasters in ways that most people can’t.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now
People with low or moderate incomes are more likely to live in houses that are poorly insulated. They are less likely to own cars that they can use to get relief from temperatures and make trips for supplies. And they are far less likely to be able to jet off to Cancún when the power goes off.
Cruz’s vacation touched a nerve because he was already a divisive figure, and also because of how it forces all of us to confront some of the implications of income inequality.
As climate change makes weather disasters more frequent and severe, policymakers, including Cruz, should try to get an idea of what it’s like to deal with prolonged outages without much money to spare.
4. Some of the best solutions are easy to understand and grossly underutilized.
If the world is ever going to get to net-zero emissions, it will happen by increasing the supply of carbon-free energy and finding ways to reduce energy demand. And we don’t focus nearly enough on reducing demand.
Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, wrote a blog post this week about the Texas crisis and the need to get a better handle on reducing electricity demand.
“To help avert the next massive power outage from extreme winter weather, can policymakers help mitigate such spikes?” he asked. “Almost certainly. That’s because most homes today consume far more energy than necessary to meet their heating needs.”
In the post, Nadel goes through some specifics, including that almost 20 percent of homes in the South Central United States are poorly insulated.
I read this and nodded because I’ve been reporting many of the same points for a long time. But I also know that readers’ eyes tend to glaze over when the topic is energy efficiency.
Maybe the topic is just boring, or the conclusions too obvious, but the underlying issue remains. If homes were properly insulated, then there would be smaller spikes in electricity demand during extreme heat and cold. That would have helped in Texas, and is an important part of the transition to clean energy.
The Texas power outages have been a showcase for some of the outstanding energy reporters across the country and the state. The Texas Tribune in partnership with ProPublica had a story this week that looks at how Texas lawmakers and regulators failed to act on evidence that the state’s electricity grid was extremely vulnerable. Energy companies fought changes that would cost them money, and they succeeded, helping to set the stage for what happened this month.
In news that has nothing to do with the Texas crisis, the school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, has entered into a contract for 300 electric school buses, and is planning to eventually replace its entire fleet of 1,400-plus buses with electric models, as Steven Mufson and Sarah Kaplan write in The Washington Post. The contract is being described by environmental advocates as the largest single purchase of electric buses in the country, and is an important step toward dealing with the climate and health effects of diesel buses.
Chris Hubbuch of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote this week about questions over whether Wisconsin law allows leasing of solar electricity systems. Leasing is an option in many states that expands the market for solar because the up-front costs are lower than buying the systems. But Wisconsin utilities have said that solar leasing infringes on the utilities’ status as the only entities that can legally sell electricity, leading to a dispute before regulators. One of the key players is Eagle Point Solar, an Iowa company that was part of my 2019 story about Iowa’s solar industry.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to email@example.com.