The failures of Texas’ grid are many and layered. Books will likely be written about the events of the week of Valentine’s Day 2021, along with turgid reports and innumerable articles by better and more poorly informed authors, and by people with specific partisan axes to grind. This article is just part of the flow of virtual ink on the subject, but will try to provide some riverbanks for exploration.
The first thing to acknowledge is that about three dozen Texans died due to Winter Storm Uri, and hundreds suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, a condition that can cause long-term brain and heart damage. This is a health tragedy. It’s compounded by being a financial tragedy for many, especially the people who chose Griddy as their utility. It comes as the Houston area especially is still cleaning up after significant flooding in 2020, while it was still cleaning up the last effects from the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. A large percentage of the 100,000 people who left New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina went to Houston and never returned. Many of the people affected by this have been hit many times, and as always, minorities tend to get hit the worst. Ignoring everything else, this is a broad-scale tragedy, and my thoughts were with the people as they struggled through it, and as they build back.
The Causes Of The Blackout
To start this section, it’s worth listing briefly the major factors which caused the blackouts, just to have an accurate summary. The first was that the cold weather increased demand for natural gas for both heating and electrical generation well above projected requirements. The second was that the natural gas system in Texas is based on fracking, shale oil, and just-in-time delivery (more on this later). The third is that the natural gas system in Texas isn’t winterized, and allows high water content natural gas to flow through pipes, which subsequently froze in many places. The fourth is that gas generation facilities weren’t winterized, and multiple failure conditions occurred in multiple plants due to icing of instruments and the like. The fourth is that coal piles were drenched, then froze, preventing some of the remaining coal plants from operating, where they too weren’t suffering from iced instruments. The fifth is that one of Texas’ nuclear reactors, a quarter of the nuclear generation in the state, went offline at 5:37 AM Tuesday, dropping an instant loss of 1,300 MW onto a straining grid. The sixth is that the rolling blackout grid structure hadn’t been well designed, solid operational processes weren’t in place, and it hadn’t been tested well.
Last, Texas’ ERCOT has very light transmission links to the rest of North America, having made a decision in the 1930s to have a separate grid with no federal oversight. It’s more poorly connected to neighboring states than any European country is to its neighbors, and in fact more poorly connected than any developed country or state that isn’t isolated by geography (Japan, Iceland, Hawaii) or extreme politics (South Korea, Israel). The combination meant many Texans freezing in the dark for days.
Far down the bottom of the failures was renewable energy. Solar overperformed, delivering quite a bit more electricity than expected. Solar panels love snow reflection and colder temperatures. Wind too performed better than projected. Texas winter winds are lighter than their summer winds, so wind provides more electricity during summer months. 4 GW of the 30 GW of wind generation capacity in Texas iced up, but the remaining 26 GW of capacity actually performed slightly better than projected for the entire fleet as the winds were stronger than had been projected for the period, and colder air is denser, adding an additional slight boost to generation. The solar and especially wind farms weren’t winterized, as typically happens in places expecting weather of this nature, and there were failures, but overall the renewables in Texas were more resilient than the rest of the generation.
Texas has gone from 5% to 23% of annual demand for electricity from wind energy since 2009. It’s gone from 50th to 30th in grid reliability over the same period, a record of improvement undoubtedly destroyed by the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri. It’s maintained among the lowest retail electricity rates over the same period. Now we have a clearer picture of what the low rates weren’t paying for.
A Failure To Adapt To Predictable Extreme Weather
The first lens to put on this is that of adaptation to climate change. One of the things I was privileged to do last year was work with Natural Resources of Canada (NRCan) to develop a set of material on global leading practices around planned retreat in the face of increasing change change risks for Canadian municipal leaders. Working with two deep PhDs, Patrick Saunders-Hasting of Gevity, with his depth in public health, and Brent Doberstein of the University of Waterloo, with his long focus on adaptation and planned retreat, was deeply informative for me.
In that context, the grid failures in Texas were predictable and avoidable. The state, utilities, and most municipalities failed their citizens and the businesses of Texas. The oscillation of the polar vortex which brought chilling air to Texas was compounded by the warmer Gulf waters, which meant more moisture in the air to turn into freezing rain and snow. The oscillation and the warming both have fingerprints of global warming, although the people who study that subject are being cautious still about attribution, as is appropriate for academics. That same oscillation caused Hurricane Harvey to stall over Houston, and that same warming contributed to the unprecedented rain that fell from it. An increasing likelihood of storms like Uri is part and parcel of climate change. Harvey should have brought this home to Texas, even as it ignored the lessons of 2011, when a similar winter storm caused blackouts throughout the state. (Note the exception of El Paso, which wisely connects to WECC and winterized its local system in the wake of 2011.)
One of the things I’ve reviewed since the storm is the 2011 ERCOT report, collaborated on with FERC, on the lessons learned from the 2011 ice storm and the actions that should be performed to make the Texas grid more resilient to this type of event. The report is clear, specific and accurate. The recommendations are solid, and would have avoided most of the problems that Texans faced.
The report mentions climate change exactly once.
“Emissions of natural gas and other greenhouse gases are under increasing scrutiny as the concern about global warming continues to grow.”
This reads to me more like annoyance at the scrutiny. There is no reference to an expectation of increasing extreme weather events. There is no reference to the National Climate Assessment and its reports on increasing extreme weather events. The references to the NOAA were strictly to weather data related to the storm, not to any of the NOAA NCDC material on climate change.
They had just gone through an entirely predictable extreme weather event, had a wealth of information that more extreme weather events of its type were likely in the future, and ignored it.
And, of course, there’s the problem that Texas is an outsized supplier and cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Coal generation. Gas generation. Gas furnaces. Fracking. Shale oil. Refineries. They remain a leading cause of the predictable problems that they faced.
Fingers Pointing In All Directions Away From The Actual Problem
The second lens is that of finger-pointing. Fox News talking heads such as Tucker Carlson immediately started blaming the visibly iced up wind turbines for the failure, leaping past facts and logic to a talking point their viewers would immediately accept. Republican Texas Governor Abbot blamed renewables, and he undoubtedly was informed accurately by ERCOT staff about the real state of affairs, so was actively misinforming people during a crisis when calm, realistic truth telling is required. Republican Texas Representative Crenshaw also publicly blamed wind and solar. Republican Colorado Representative Boebert tweeted a picture of a de-icing test performed in Sweden with text saying that helicopters and their fuel are required to keep wind energy running. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board chimed in with an editorial entitled “A Deep Green Freeze,” blaming wind energy for the failures.
Where it became truly surreal was when they started blaming the Green New Deal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Texas’ problems. While the Deal exists in draft form as legislation, it has not been voted in as law and it does not predate the causes of Texas’ grid situation which traces back both the 1930s decision to go it alone, but also to the 1999 Enron-era decision to deregulate the grid. AOC is a favorite target of the right, ascribing her superpowers of unprecedented political might, including apparently time travel and the ability as junior Senator from New York to cause Texas’ grid problems. Of course, AOC has been very actively fund raising for those suffering in Texas, $5 million to date, and flew down to Texas to assist in shelters.
The degree of counterfactual, dangerous, partisan finger-pointing — while the crisis was still unfolding, people were dying, people were struggling to find food and water, and people were suffering carbon monoxide poisoning — was staggering. The political calculation that Republican voters would consider this to be appropriate and would be uncritical of the outright lies and in fact embrace them was sobering.
And to be clear, the Fox News personalities, the Republican politicians, and the Wall Street Journal editorialists were right. Their lies were embraced by Republican voters across the United States and in Texas. They were repeating the lies on social media immediately and continue to do so, 10 days later, when accurate information has been repeated countless times. On Quora, where I spent some time attempting to tamp down the flames of disinformation around this with a suppressant of CO2-free facts and logic, there are still people blaming wind energy, blaming solar energy, claiming that both failed 100%, claiming that Texas should never have moved away from the coal plants that failed, and claiming that if only Texas had nuclear plants — remember, it has four and one failed — that it would have been able to keep the lights on. They are repeating former Republican Texas governor Rick Perry’s claims that Texans are happy to freeze in the dark to avoid the federal government requiring the grid to prevent Texans from freezing in the dark regularly.
The big lie continues.
Natural Gas Supplies Are A Problem
Close to a year ago, I started basing projections I was doing on the assumption that natural gas prices would rise above the rate of inflated and be more volatile again.
This was contrary to the decade of low prices and low volatility that had led up to early 2020. My reasoning was straightforward, and I’ve talked about this with energy analysts and had it validated by a report from McKinsey as well.
The first leg of the puzzle is that gas prices in the 2000s were higher on average and had regular seasonal winter spikes as both heating and electrical generation increased demand. Natural gas generation was booming, exacerbating the problem. But that was countered by the unconventional extraction revolution. Fracking for natural gas and its close related shale oil cousin were technologies that saw investment in research starting with Gerald Ford in the aftermath of the OPEC oil crisis. Those technologies were running strong by 2010 and had already been having observable impacts in the 2000s.
But shale oil and fracking were more expensive and lower return than rosy projections had shown. In late 2019 there were increasing bankruptcies in the sector, increasing M&A activity as consolidation set in, and foreclosures and even seizing of assets by banks trying to get 10 cents on their dollars of debt. The market had already taken 70% off the S&P oil and gas exploration index by the start of 2020. This was a sector in trouble, and the debt necessary to operate was getting harder to come by.
Then the annus horribilis of the oil and gas sector started. There were reports out of China of a new virus, and even with my background helping build the most sophisticated outbreak management solution in the world in the aftermath of SARS, I was taken by surprise. The world stopped traveling unnecessarily. Businesses went fallow. Energy demand dropped. And during the start of this Russia and Saudi Arabia opened the taps, starting a price war aimed at knocking out high-cost suppliers so that when the age of oil ended, Russia and Saudi Arabia would be the ones selling the last barrels.
Roughly 70% of natural gas in the US comes from oil beds, mostly shale oil beds these days. The remainder comes from fracking. 2020 saw an bloodbath of companies failing, merging, shuttering, slowing down, stopping exploration, and every other permutation of an industry struggling to survive. And it was obvious to me that the era of natural gas being unnaturally cheap and having seasonal price stability was coming to an end.
The Texas gas generation plants have been built mostly since deregulation in 1999 and with the shale and fracking booms in mind. They almost entirely run on just-in-time supply of natural gas and hold no reserves. There are no strategic reserves. It’s very efficient when it doesn’t fail completely. To paraphrase the Tom Toro cartoon, “Yes, Texans froze in the dark, died and suffered lifelong injury. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”
And so some river banks for broad topics which will be the subject of deep studies for years to come. This is a failure which shouldn’t have happened. This was entirely predictable, was predicted, the solutions detailed, and none of the solutions were implemented. There is culpability here. Dozens of Texans are dead, hundreds facing potentially lifelong medical disability, more facing impossible financial expectations after a fiscally challenging year. No wonder the people in charge are pointing anywhere but at the real problems.