Here we go again: Texas, climate change and the power grid

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AUSTIN, TX – FEBRUARY 17, 2021: A sign states that a Fiesta Mart is closed because of a power outage in Austin, Texas on February 17, 2021. Millions of Texans are still without water and electric as winter storms continue. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

This past February, snow, ice and record cold temperatures from Winter Storm Uri caused energy supply to plummet, triggering a cascade of failures that left more than 10 million Texans in the dark before presenting them with tens of billions of dollars in electricity and gas charges systemwide. In all, nearly 30 gigawatts of gas, coal and nuclear were offline during the crisis.

Last week the challenge was extreme heat rather than cold, but the outcome feels eerily similar: More than 10 gigawatts of mainly fossil-fuel thermal plants were already off-line with forced outages. Consumers are being asked to conserve and, once again, the Texas grid is on the edge of blackouts. 

The power problems associated with these two very different weather events illustrate how urgent it is that we prepare for a future where climate change is fueling an even wider range of extreme weather. 

How do we do this? First, it is crucial to realize that keeping the power on is a public good. While generators lose some revenue when the power goes out, most of the costs of power outages are paid by society. It’s estimated that Uri, for example, cost the citizens of Texas upwards of $200 billion. Its greatest impacts fell on the poorest and most marginalized communities who already lacked the infrastructure and resources that would help them weather the storm.  

Power companies are presently underinvesting in the infrastructure needed to keep the power on. This is where the government can play a role to ensure that energy producers make the changes needed to make the energy system more resilient. Senate Bill 3, recently passed by the Texas legislature, was a step in that direction. It required power plants to winterize; but it did not require similar improvements by the gas system and did not directly address summer reliability.  

It’s also important to revise our markets and policies to foster behaviors and technology adoption that will make the grid affordable, clean and reliable. Stricter performance standards and market signals for reliability and cleanliness could and should be created within ERCOT (the organization that runs the Texas grid). Power generators could be paid for new grid support services they provide and renewables rewarded for the air pollution and heat-trapping gas emissions they avoid.

Second, energy systems need to be built for the weather of the future, not the past. Rather than looking backwards at what the climate used to be, we have to build climate projections into our plans. Every season in Texas has been warming since the 1950s and human-caused climate change has already increased high temperatures during our most extreme heat waves by 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite these observed trends, however, ERCOT does not incorporate climate change into their long-range forecast of energy demand. In fact, the words “global warming” and “climate change” appear nowhere in their planning document.

Third, we need to be less wasteful with our energy. Because approximately half of summer peak electricity demand is from residential air conditioning, energy efficiency is an important tool for improving grid performance. With more efficient homes, it’s easier to keep interiors at a comfortable temperature while consuming less energy, shaving peak power demand and lowering energy bills. 

People can be incentivized to use less electricity when it’s scarce, like demand response programs that financially reward industrial consumers who turn off large loads. A similar program can be set up for homeowners whereby non-essential residential loads — clothes dryers, water heaters and pool pumps — are cycled on/off to reduce power demand and give consumers a break on their bill for doing so.

Lastly, we must acknowledge the benefits of a diversified grid that includes clean energy. During winter storm Uri, only one-fifth of the electricity outages were due to wind or solar. And in summer, more rooftop solar, microgrids and storage close to urban areas would avoid stressing overloaded transmission lines while diversifying our fuel mix. The new Samson Solar Energy Center being built near Dallas will be the largest in the U.S. when it’s completed, supplying over 1,300 megawatts of electricity to three local cities and five corporations. Each fuel and technology option has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reliability, and Texas’ overreliance on gas has already proven problematic.

There are many viable pathways forward to a cleaner, more resilient power grid for Texas. What we lack now is the conviction to act and a willingness to move past identity politics to implement sensible solutions.

Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial professor of Energy Resources at The University of Texas in Austin and chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His documentary television series, “Power Trip: The Story of Energy,” is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video and local PBS stations

Andrew Dessler is a professor of Atmospheric Sciences and holder of the Reta A. Haynes Chair in Geosciences at Texas A&M University and author of the textbook “Introduction to Modern Climate Change.” 

Katharine Hayhoe is a Horn Distinguished professor and Endowed Chair in Public Policy and Public Law at Texas Tech University. She hosts the PBS Digital Series “Global Weirding.” 

Tags Climate change electric grid energy blackouts extreme heat POWER Texas energy Texas power grid Texas winter storm
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