Why a powerful winter storm caused blackouts in Texas

The powerful winter storm that swept across the continental United States this week hit Texas with arctic temperatures that led to widespread blackouts, plunging millions into darkness as snow and record cold paralyzed the nation’s second-largest state.

Republican lawmakers and right-wing experts opposing the Biden administration’s clean energy policies seized the opportunity to blame the Lone Star State’s growing use of wind energy for the cuts.

But while production from all sources of electricity plummeted in Texas, frozen instruments at coal, nuclear and natural gas power plants, along with a limited supply of natural gas, were the main cause of ongoing blackouts, Dan Woodfin, a senior director of the Texas Electric Reliability Council, told Bloomberg News on Tuesday. (ERCOT is the state’s leading network operator.)

Energy analysts and electricity experts said a complete failure to plan for extreme weather scenarios caused the kind of cascading disaster that risks becoming more common as climate chaos increases pressure on human systems.

Ironically, wind power represented a bright spot for grid operators, as the resource, which tends to decline in winter months, actually beat daily production forecasts over the past weekend.

ERCOT did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Transmission towers and power lines lead to a substation after a snowstorm on February 16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ron Jenkins / Getty Images

Transmission towers and power lines lead to a substation after a snowstorm on February 16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.

“There’s so much misinformation and a ridiculous political twist that focuses on icy wind turbines when that’s the part of the supply that ERCOT most realistically planned,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston. “For the coldest day in winter, they were only hoping to get a small piece of the cake from wind and solar power.”

Rather, the grid operator planned to obtain around 90% of the electricity load from what it calls “firm and reliable resources” such as coal, natural gas and nuclear reactors, he said.

“It has been a failure that our ‘strong and reliable resources’ have not been strong or reliable when we need them most,” Cohan said.

Of the roughly 70,000 megawatts in gas, coal and nuclear plants, up to 30,000 megawatts have been off since Sunday night, said Jesse Jenkins, an electricity expert at Princeton University.

“The main story remains the failure of thermal power plants – natural gas, coal and nuclear plants – that ERCOT is counting on to be there when needed,” Jenkins wrote in a series of tweets On tuesday night. “They have failed”.

Customers use the light of a cell phone to look in the meat section of a Dallas grocery store on February 16.

LM Otero / AP

Customers used the light of a cell phone to look in the meat section of a Dallas grocery store on February 16. Although the store ran out of power, it was open for cash-only sales.

To further complicate matters, homes in Texas are designed to keep temperatures about 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than outside air during scorching summers, so as not to hold back the heat during freezing winters, said Joshua Rhodes, a Webber research associate. from the University of Texas at Austin. Energy Group. Now that heat loss is adding to growing demand on the grid.

“Everything in Texas is focused on peak summer demand when we all try to condition the air in our homes and keep it at 75 when there is 105 outside,” said Rhodes. “We have designed our houses for this 30 degree difference. But now our houses are trying to maintain a 60 degree difference and they are not designed to do so. It’s a losing battle. “

Under normal conditions, Texas utility and grid operators plan for peak demand during the summer heat. During the winter, many plants remain offline and supplies are routed elsewhere until energy-consuming air conditioning and refrigerator systems cause demand on the grid to surge in August. The blackouts now show that “the demand forecasts were wrong, and they were very, very low,” said electricity analyst Nick Steckler.

“It was a big mistake,” said Steckler, who heads the US energy unit at energy research firm BloombergNEF, which is a separate company from the financial news service. “I cannot emphasize how much the available capacity was below the expected total demand.”

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) called for an investigation into ERCOT’s preparations, declaring the matter an emergency issue in this legislative session to “ensure that Texans never again experience power outages on the scale they have seen in recent days. “

“The Texas Electrical Reliability Council has been anything but trustworthy for the past 48 hours,” Abbott said in its statement. “Too many Texans are without electricity and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”

It wasn’t just the grid operator and power plants that were to blame. Pipeline utilities whose supply lines were frozen and even building designers and construction practices that limited insulation for cold weather made “Texas gas and electricity demand extremely sensitive to cold weather events. “Jenkins said in your twitter thread.

Pike Electric service trucks line up after the February 16 snowstorm in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ron Jenkins / Getty Images

Pike Electric service trucks line up after the February 16 snowstorm in Fort Worth, Texas.

In that sense, the blackouts echo another recent climate disaster that Texans faced. After years of concrete expansion that spread further and further outward, Houston’s lack of climate planning left it vulnerable to catastrophic flooding when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017. At the time, Andrew Dessler, a climatologist and science professor atmospheric conditions at Texas A&M University, HuffPost said the storm offered “a taste of the future.”

It is impossible to know yet whether this particular cold snap is related to climate change, and there is a lively debate about how much warming the Arctic is weakening the forces in the stratosphere that normally keep cold temperatures confined to northern latitudes. Land. In 2018, Potsdam Climate Impact Research Institute scientist Marlene Kretschmer found that the periods of force of a weakened “polar vortex” had increased over the past four decades and that these corresponded to approximately 60% of the extremes. cold in the mid-latitude part of Eurasia during the last four decades. the term. But researchers argued last year in the peer-reviewed journal Nature that there is not enough data to make definitive claims about the link.

Much less strict ethics and adherence to facts guide what political opportunists contribute to the discussion of what is happening in Texas.

Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) shared a 2014 image of a helicopter defrosting a wind turbine in Sweden, calling it “a perfect example of the need for reliable energy sources like natural gas and coal.”

The opposite ends of the media empire of right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch managed to project a unified message that also blamed the icy turbines.

On the side of the most prestigious newspapers, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, a body whose willingness to manipulate events for ideological purposes has drawn the ire of reporters in its newsroom, lashed out at what it called “the paradox. from the left’s climate agenda: The less we use fossil fuels, the more we need them ”, in an opinion piece titled“ A Deep Green Freeze ”.

On the populist television side, Fox News star Tucker Carlson focused on wind turbines in his monologue Monday night: “Everything worked great until the cold day outside. Windmills failed for the silly fashion accessories that they are, and people in Texas died. This is not to hit the state of Texas, it’s actually a great state, but to give you an idea of ​​what is going to happen to you. “

Carlson delivered his usual form, providing the kind of confusing political disinformation that the public can now depend on after disasters.

“There always seem to be narratives that are very far from the reality that is happening,” Cohan said. “Gaslight is a good word for that.”

Sara Boboltz contributed reporting.


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