Following last month’s power outage in Texas, state legislators conducted hearings to sort out what happened and why. There was plenty of finger-pointing and little enlightenment. Power company executives laid the blame on shortages of natural gas, grid disturbances, and a lack of communication from the grid operator, Ercot. Ercot, for its part, stated that it was following the rules set by the Public Utility Commission. In turn, the Public Utility Commission claimed it didn’t have the authority to tell Ercot what to do.
According to Bloomberg Green, “The historic outage caused as much as $129 billion in economic losses, and the impact to individual companies is only starting to emerge… Oil and gas producers saw their output halted.” The death toll was 111. What brought about this massive failure to safeguard public health, safety, and welfare?
What caused the Texas power outage?
A polar vortex brought several days of bitterly cold temperatures to Texas. That placed extreme demands on power plants, some of which were unable to operate in those temperatures. Without power, water pumps could not operate, leaving half of all Texans without access to safe drinking water. Natural gas pipelines also depend on electric power to operate, so some gas-fired power plants could not get fuel. As a result, 4.5 million homes were without power. Hundreds of people suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning when they used unsafe methods to keep warm.
Texas maintains its power grid separate from that of the rest of the country to avoid federal regulation. In normal times, minimal regulation has resulted in low energy prices. However, it also gives utilities no incentive to equip their plants to operate in cold weather. That left them unprepared for the polar vortex. And it made it impossible to obtain power from other parts of the country to compensate.
Instead of government regulation, Texas relies on market incentives. When demand for power is low relative to supply, the price is low and consumers benefit. However, in very hot or very cold weather, demand soars—and so does the price. Some Texans received electric bills for thousands of dollars when their utilities passed on the higher costs to them. Other utilities have vowed not to pass on the costs to their customers, but they still have to pay for what they used. So far one utility, the Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, has declared bankruptcy. However, more may follow suit.
Is there a better way?
Things work differently in Minnesota. We complain sometimes about high taxes and the extent of government regulation. But even in temperatures far colder than in Texas, we stayed warm and kept the lights on and the water flowing.
Like it or not, that’s due to government regulation of our utilities. Among other things, that kept the price of electricity from soaring and encouraged utilities to prepare for unusually high demand. As a result, they stored fuel oil for their natural gas-fired plants. They also brought an old coal-fired plant, which they maintain solely for emergencies, back on line. And they knew which renewable power sources they could rely on.
Some wind turbines in Texas did stop spinning in the cold snap. They do here, too, although the winterized versions in the northern plains are typically good down to 22 below before they shut down. Minnesota’s power companies, though, don’t really count on wind turbines to contribute much during cold snaps…because the wind rarely blows enough to generate power when the temperature gets that cold. The companies already factor that into their plans for generating power in extreme conditions.—Lee Schafer, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 27 February 2021
Not surprisingly, Minnesota’s power grid is better prepared to operate in extremely cold weather than those in Texas. After all, we have subzero temperatures every winter. But strangely enough, a similar power outage occurred in Texas ten years ago.
History repeats itself
According to National Public Radio, on 2 February 2011, “extreme cold led to a spike in electricity use, and coal and natural gas plants and electric utility companies didn’t have the resources to maintain service.” Without electricity it was impossible to pump natural gas, so some gas-fired power plants had to shut down. While most Texas homes have electric heat, some use gas, increasing demand for natural gas beyond the supply.
The Economist states, “A decade ago a severe storm caused nearly a third of the state’s power-generating units to fail, causing rolling blackouts and prompting hearings into Ercot. Yet experts’ suggestions—such as protecting equipment for winter conditions, increasing the grid’s excess capacity and reforming Ercot—were ignored.” As Joe Straus, former speaker of the Texas House, put it, “We knew what to do, we just didn’t do it.”
When events point out vulnerabilities in local infrastructure, some governments take action. Florida upgraded its building-code requirements after Hurricane Andrew. California did the same after the Northridge earthquake. In response to hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City is planning the Big U, 10 miles of green stormwater infrastructure along its waterfront. And after the 2011 tsunami, the city of Okuma, Japan, raised the elevation of its land by 20 feet and build a 40-foot seawall. Such actions make for more resilient infrastructure. With climate change, more extreme weather events necessitate more resilient engineering.
Learning from experience—or not
The Economist predicts that Texas’ power outage will not change anything. People keep moving there in great numbers—something government leaders can cite as a form of validation. Because the Republican party is so powerful in Texas, there’s no effective opposition party to question the way they do things. Lastly, opposition to the Biden administration is popular—even though Texas will likely benefit from federal aid to compensate for the effects of the power outage. So we can expect Texans to keep doing things more or less the way they’ve always done.
However, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 3 at the end of May 2021. It requires electric utilities to winterize their infrastructure and operations or pay fines of up to $1 million per day. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it on 8 June, and it went into effect immediately. It’s an encouraging sign that they’re less inclined to keep doing the same thing while expecting the results to be different.