An off-course polar vortex meandered toward the Mexican border, bringing with it frigid Arctic air rarely seen as far south as Texas. Frozen equipment rendered power generation systems in the state inoperable, forcing grid operators to begin rolling blackouts to customers then left to fend for themselves in the glacial weather.
The year was 2021. And 2011. And 1989.
These same scenes have played out before across the Lone Star State, and experts previously had warned that they would happen again if Texas power generators, grid operators, and lawmakers failed to make the necessary investments to address the problem. Fail they did, and Texans suffered the consequences in mid-February 2021, with more than 50 deaths, over 4 million homes and businesses losing power, 7 million forced to boil tap water before drinking it, and a price tag already in the billions of dollars. Minority and low-income communities, as so often is the case when a disaster strikes, were hit hardest.
Experts similarly warn that unless investments are made to rapidly curb greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will also usher in extreme weather with impacts societies are unprepared for, and to which low-income and communities of color are the most vulnerable. Texas provides an example of the consequences of ignoring these types of expert warnings.
The Polar Vortex keeps messing with Texas
On December 21–25, 1989, Arctic air descended on Texas, delivering some of the state’s coldest temperatures ever recorded, below zero degrees Fahrenheit. More than 15 gigawatts (GW) of power (about 40% of the state’s power generation capacity) went offline, felled by frozen instrumentation and other cold weather-related impacts and resulting in extensive power outages. The electricity generation failures were widespread: 42% were gas, 34% coal, 16% oil, and 8% nuclear power. The Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT) investigated what went wrong in 1989 and identified inadequate heat tracing systems and insulation on instrumentation sensing lines as the most common equipment problems during the freeze.
Those findings went largely ignored in Texas, and a similar polar vortex extreme cold air event struck the state on February 1-5, 2011. Accounting for windchill, temperatures once again plummeted below zero. Nearly 23 GW of power went offline, again mostly because frozen equipment that lacked sufficient insulation and heating. More than 3 million Texans experienced power outages. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (FERC/NERC) investigated the event, and their report in August 2011 detailed its causes and made recommendations about how to prevent a recurrence, concluding:
Despite the recommendations issued by the PUCT in its report on the 1989 event, the majority of the problems generators experienced in 2011 resulted from failures of the very same type of equipment that failed in the earlier event. And in many cases, these failures were experienced by the same generators … Generators were not required to institute cold-weather preparedness, and efforts in that regard lapsed with the passage of time … Statutes should ideally direct utility commissions to develop best winterization practices for its state, and make winterization plans mandatory.
Once again, Texas leadership did not heed those recommendations. As Dan Woodfin, a senior director at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) told the Texas Tribune, winterizing power infrastructure in Texas is “not mandatory, it’s a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things,” and many power generators did not. As a result, when the polar vortex returned to Texas this past February 15, it was déjà vu all over again. [Hat tip to Yogi Berra.] Windchill temperatures across the state were sub-zero. About 45 GW of power went offline, victims of frozen equipment, and over 4 million Texans lost power. Their power was out in many cases for much longer than in the 1989 and 2011 events, and the grid this year reportedly came seconds to minutes away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans without power for months.
Partisan talking heads on cable TV were quick to blame the disaster on wind turbines, some of which were incapacitated by blade icing. According to the liberal nonprofit watchdog Media Matters, the Fox News and Fox Business networks alone blamed renewable energy for the Texas blackouts a staggering 128 times over three days.
In reality, offline gas and coal power generation were the main culprits, producing just 50-60% of expected capacity between February 15 and 17, coming up about 35 GW short. According to Woodfin, frozen wind turbines were the least significant factor contributing to the power blackouts, producing at most 4 to 5 GW less than ERCOT’s modest expectations.
The Texas power grid was relying on fossil fuels, and they proved unreliable in the icy conditions as a result of a lack of winterization measures.
Texas power outage climate connections
Questions arise on whether climate change is making these polar vortex excursions into the U.S. more frequent, and the answer is a resounding “maybe.” Some climate scientists have hypothesized that rapid Arctic warming caused by shrinking sea ice and snow cover is weakening the jet stream that holds the polar vortex up north. When the jet stream air circulation slows, it develops a more meandering path similar to the behavior of a slow water current. In that case, cold air spills out of the Arctic, as the NOAA diagram below illustrates, and as happened this February.
Some studies, like this 2016 paper from scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and this 2018 publication in Nature Communications, suggest that winter jet stream wobbles are happening more frequently, but a 2020 study in Nature Climate Change found no evidence corroborating the hypothesis. In short, wobbly jet stream events do occur naturally. And on the question of whether climate change is making them more frequent in winter: it’s possible, but the jury is still out.
The scientific evidence is much stronger that climate change is worsening extreme heat, fires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes, all of which can also stress power generation systems. Mitigating climate change will require a rapid deployment of carbon-free power, and adapting to climate change will require a power grid that’s more resilient to weather extremes. Expanding long-range electricity transmission to interconnect different regions in the U.S. can help address the latter problem, but Texas has resisted such measures.
To avoid federal regulation, Texas has mostly isolated its power grid from other areas of the country. According to former governor Rick Perry, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business” – an accurate description of the tradeoffs involved with this choice.
As University of Houston energy economics lecturer Ed Hirs explained, the lack of regulation over the state’s energy market (similar to California’s 20 years ago when Enron triggered an energy crisis in that state) creates competition between power generators, incentivizing them to sell electricity as cheaply as possible. While that may be a sensible goal, the deregulation backfired during the cold snap, with electricity prices spiking by a factor of 100 and customers hit with utility bills as high as $17,000. The CFO of natural gas company Comstock Resources, owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, said, “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.” Crucially, the unregulated system also creates a disincentive for utilities to make extra investments, such as winterizing equipment to prepare for the relatively rare once-per-decade extreme cold snap.
Finding power generation winterization measures to not be cost-prohibitive, many other states have adopted them. The 2011 FERC/NERC report estimated that “the capital cost of upgrading basic equipment such as insulation and heat tracing could range from $50,000 to $500,000” per gas power generating unit. Wind turbines can also be outfitted with de-icing equipment, and hence are able to operate reliably in climates as cold as in Antarctica. But implementing such measures requires investment and/or regulation.
It’s a situation akin to that caused by climate change itself, where experts warn that immediate low-carbon infrastructure investments are needed to slow global warming and reduce risks of potentially catastrophic outcomes. Those investments appear costly in the short-term, but more than pay for themselves over time in both increased efficiency and avoided climate damages.
Texas leadership’s decisions over the past three decades have provided a glimpse at the consequences of ignoring expert warnings about the need to invest in measures to mitigate against extreme weather impacts, and it’s not a pretty picture.