It wasn’t a torrid heat wave or a Category 5 hurricane that brought the Texas electrical grid to its knees on February 15. Instead, it was the most widespread and intense cold and snow in decades.

The frigid onslaught triggered a cascade of events that left millions of Texans shivering in the darkness of unheated, unlit homes. Temperatures sank well below freezing all the way to the Texas coast, putting Houston below 32 degrees Fahrenheit for nearly 48 hours and leaving countless records broken on the icy plains.

All-time lows were set in Tyler (-5°F) and Longview (-6°F), and a bone-chilling -20°F was reported in the Texas Panhandle.

Frozen wind turbines played only small role in Texas outages

Many – including some prominent climate change contrarians – were quick to pin the “electric emergency” on the massive turbines that make Texas the leading U.S. state for wind energy. While the deep freeze did knock some turbines offline, practically every mode of energy supply was hobbled by the intense cold, snow, and ice.

The main cause of the massive disruption, by far, were the frozen components leading to the outage of thermal plants that heat water and convert the steam to electricity. The vast bulk of those thermal plants are powered by natural gas. In addition, the South Texas Nuclear Plant was thrown out of service Monday as a result of frozen pipes, which cut even further into the Houston area’s electricity supply.

Also feeding the crisis were several factors unique to Texas. Most of the Lone Star State is on a power grid that’s separate from the western and eastern U.S. grids, a decades-old bid to avoid interstate regulation but one that reduces the Texas grid’s flexibility. The state’s deregulated, just-in-time energy marketplace is also a factor, as it leans on production versus storage – a risk when natural gas lines freeze up – and it allows for massive price spikes during weather outages.

The three main components of the North American power grid are the Western and Eastern Interconnections and the ERCOT Interconnection, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and encompassing most of the state. (Image credit: ERCOT)

Investigations after similar but less-extensive Texas freeze disasters in 1989 and 2011 pinned much of the blame on equipment that was insufficiently protected against extreme cold, a threat that’s infrequent in Texas but notoriously brutal when it does arrive. “Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011,” according to a report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Commission.

“I think the Texas freeze will become the new poster child for compound weather and energy disasters,” said atmospheric scientist Daniel Cohan of Rice University, who’s working on a book about energy and climate change. “The challenges faced this week will likely be studied for years to come, and they show how tough it is to achieve resilience in a changing climate during an energy transition.”

Overall, of course, the temperature trend points to more warming. In Texas and in most other U.S. locations, the coldest winter temperatures have been steadily rising, according to data compiled by the nonprofit science and communications group Climate Central. Yet a warming climate doesn’t preclude the occasional extreme wintry blast.

It’s also possible, though not universally accepted, that depleted sea ice and amplified Arctic warming are exacerbating at least some mid-latitude cold episodes, a topic of lively, ongoing research debate.

U.S. electric grid is uniquely vulnerable: This ‘doesn’t happen everywhere’

The week’s U.S. power woes extended well beyond Texas, the result of an unusually prolonged and widespread bout of frigid air and frozen precipitation. According to poweroutage.us, some 175,000 customers were without power in Oregon on the evening of February 16. They were joined by more than 200,000 customers in Kentucky and West Virginia, and 3.2 million customers still powerless in Texas.

More trouble is looming in the forecast, with fresh winter-weather watches and warnings in place from Austin to Boston. All told, this sequence of mid-February storms could end up interrupting power for well over 10 million Americans.

To put it bluntly, this kind of situation doesn’t happen everywhere. In fact, it happens more often in the U.S. than in any other developed country, according to the University of Minnesota’s Massoud Amin, a founding expert in smart-grid technology. Amin has found that utility customers lose power for an average of 4 minutes annually in Japan, compared to 92 minutes per year in the Upper Midwest.

“We are behind all other G7 nations in our infrastructure, including the power grid,” Amin said.

One clear factor is America’s outsized crop of extreme weather. Another is the vast number of weather-vulnerable U.S. power lines that lie overhead, especially in older eastern cities. Nations such as Germany and the Netherlands prioritize burying power lines, a process that’s costly but that helps reduce the havoc resulting from extreme weather.

Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. had an increase of 67% in major weather-related power outages (those affecting at least 50,000 customers) as compared to 2000-2009, as tracked by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and analyzed by Climate Central. These outages cost an average of $18 to $33 billion per year, with the indirect costs much higher.

For 2020, DOE reported 118 major outages, the second-largest annual total this century. That ranks behind only 2011, a year with record tornado damage.

What’s more, the aging U.S. grid is being hit hard by compound weather disasters, those occurring near each other in time or space – or both. From the final week of October 2020 into early November, three far-flung areas experienced nine major outages, some lasting more than a week. The culprit was a strange juxtaposition of weather disasters that included an exceptionally early and destructive ice storm and a very late-season hurricane landfall.

  • Wildfires in California, 10/25-10/27 (506,000 customers)
  • Ice storm in Oklahoma, 10/27-11/7 (682,000 customers)
  • Hurricane Zeta in and near Louisiana, 10/28-11/2 (1,099,000 customers)

How climate change is stressing the grid

Compound disasters are a topic of growing interest among researchers. They point out that the total impact of compound events can be much greater than the sum of their parts. For example, the nation’s limited supply of utility repair crews can get stretched beyond its ability to respond.

Climate change is already exacerbating some potential threats to the power grid: for instance, the ramped-up intensity of heat waves and the increased frequency of sprawling “stuck” weather patterns in summertime.

Colin Raymond of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is lead author on an essay published last summer in Nature Climate Change that delves into understanding and managing compound and connected weather and climate disasters. Raymond draws a distinction between compound weather and climate events – often linked to a single, persistent large-scale weather pattern – and connected events, which occur when compound events are “amplified by societal networks.” According to Raymond, the latter “leads to impacts that are larger or have a different spatiotemporal pattern than they would otherwise.”

The coast-to-coast power outages of February 2021 are one example. In their Nature Climate Change essay, Raymond and colleagues highlight another: the sequential assault from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria within a month’s time in the summer of 2017.

By the time Maria struck Puerto Rico, the study noted, U.S. emergency response systems had been stretched thin by Hurricane Harvey striking Texas the previous month and Hurricane Irma hitting Florida the previous week. On top of Puerto Rico’s pre-existing vulnerabilities – including under-maintained infrastructure, limited budgets, an aging population, and lack of statehood benefits – relief supplies pre-negotiated by FEMA had been drained by Harvey and Irma. The agency rushed into new arrangements that were plagued with problems, including steep markups.

Damaged power lines were strewn across Puerto Rico on September 21, 2017, when a military convoy including Governor Ricardo Rosselló visited the cities of Loiza and Canóvanas to survey destruction left by Hurricane Maria. (Image credit: Puerto Rico National Guard, via Flickr)

Scientists are exploring an array of new tools to help examine how compound and connected events are intertwined and how policymakers can unravel the knots. According to Raymond and colleagues, “impacts can serve as a winnowing device to identify what combinations of extreme events matter.” Emerging computational and communication technologies could also make a big difference, especially with the help of high-quality, fine-grained impacts data.

The most promising analog, according to Raymond and colleagues, may be in the spectacular progress of aviation safety. They call it a realm where “physical science, engineering, and social sciences have come together to successfully mitigate – despite greatly increasing system complexity – the frequency of disastrous failures.”

How to keep the juice flowing

As for the U.S. power grid, there’s no sign that weather and climate will be giving it a break anytime soon. With La Niña still in place, extended climate outlooks point to the potential for a drought-ridden spring across the western United States, perhaps extending into summer. In addition, tornadoes and hail tend to be more frequent in the southern Great Plains during La Niña springs, and La Niña often fosters an enhanced Atlantic hurricane season.

Texas’ electricity calamity of 2021 is bound to trigger debate on how to keep the evolving U.S. grid robust during various types of disasters, especially as the nation becomes more reliant on electricity that will increasingly come from renewable sources. De-icing systems and cold-weather lubricants are used in many wind turbines in northern climates. Over time, grid-scale battery storage for wind and solar energy could play a major role.

No matter how the sources and storage evolve, transmission and grid coordination are two Achilles’ heels that’ll have to be dealt with. Several companies are now using artificial intelligence to anticipate and track grid outages. In addition, decentralized microgrids could help distinct locations such as hospitals or college campuses keep the power going even during grid outages.

“We need a smarter, stronger, more secure grid,” said Amin, who chaired the board of the Texas Reliability Entity (the regional council for ensuring bulk power access) for seven years. “My hat is off to grid operators and utilities in Texas and elsewhere who are trying to keep up a system that was never designed to handle such contingencies. We need to help them make it stronger and more resilient.”

Collaboration among weather, climate, and energy researchers could also help ensure the grid is equipped to handle the mix of weather extremes that the evolving climate will be flinging our way.

Also see: A website about the U.S. electricity grid offers a mesmerizing way to pass the time productively

“No infrastructural relic may be as vulnerable as the U.S. electric grid,” environmental scientist Urooj Raja of the University of Colorado Boulder wrote in a 2020 essay for The Hill. “As climate change escalates and disrupts weather patterns, our country must update the grid, immediately, or risk losing not only power, but lives.”

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. He has written on weather and climate for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Weather Underground, and many freelance...

73 replies on “Why the power is out in Texas … and why other states are vulnerable too”

  1. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Memory is a funny thing. Nixon era bumper sticker from Texas:

    Let Them Freeze in the Dark

  2. For those complaining about the cost of renewable energy, please know that a lot of money and politics contributed to extra fees and restrictions on clean energy. Big fossil and the cult of ignorance at work. Never mind the future! [I get significant surcharges on my “clean choice” energy.]

  3. Did anyone else notice that the GFS spins up a small TD south of Bermuda around 300 hours? It is February! Remind GFS that it is still winter…..

    1. just testing the system. annual maintenance, that sort of thing. Can hear the orchestra tuning if you hold your breath, chairs banging in the gallery. 2021 is going to be great show…. Now what are the SSTs at, again?

  4. On second thoughts, just having seen an item about hydrogen – https://newatlas.com/energy/hydrogen-council-insights/:
    Any excess power from wind or solar power or any other non-regulated electricity producer can be used to produce hydrogen. The price of electrolyzers is falling fast. Gas pipelines, if of good quality and well maintained, can be repurposed for hydrogen transport. In case of need the hydrogen can be used to generate electricity for the grid but otherwise it will be used for transport and in the chemical industry.

    Also: Houses might be built largely sunk into the ground to reduce the influence of high and low temperatures and to expose a smaller part to tornadoes, and make that part strong enough to survive that tornado. But make sure they will not be filled by surface water.

    1. Thank you. Clearly the problems cannot be solved in a country where the power does not lie with the voters but with rapacious rich people and the representatives they own.

      1. And their deluded followers, cultists and team politics-as-sport fans. The loyalty is all, forget making life better and working together to solve problems.

  5. As a Dutchman I hear every year on the BBC stories about huge black outs due to storms, snow, ice or just wind, and I consider not burying power cables to be very expensive.

    In a very complex grid it makes sense to have a top layer of direct current. Last year a synchronisation problem knocked two large wind farms off line causing a wide spread black out in Southern England.

  6. What seems logical to me would be developing a grid that is not only more resilient but also more flexible. Instead of eliminating options, target energy sources to specific settings. Conserve natural gas supplies for times like this, when wind and solar generation are least available and effective.

  7. When Richard Duncan made his assertions in 1989 concerning the future of the industrial world, peak oil, crossover events and the 30% fossil fuel usage we would be dwindled to by 2030, he hit the rolling blackouts within just a few years of his prediction. Can we get in front of this rolling front of chaos now? Only with an incredible decade of swift, steady and quality driven renewables. He gets laughed at sometimes but so far he has been on the right track. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/05/Http_karlnorth.com_wp-content_uploads_2017_09_olduvai-scenario.jpg

  8. Funny how ‘climate science’ claims to be able to predict temperatures for years in the future,’ and yet these very same climate scientists had NO IDEA about the approach of any climate disaster in Texas until it was obvious to everyone with radar.

    Either they can predict or they cannot predict, it appears they cannot.

    Estimates and predictions about the future are therefore suspect when used by scientists with an ax to grind, huh?

    1. Climate science predicted that the Arctic would warm faster than the mid latitudes, and that as a result the northern hemisphere jet stream would weaken. We’ve seen the higher ridges and deeper troughs that the meandering jet stream makes, and their greater tendency to stall in place. As a result, we’re seeing longer average heat waves, cold waves, droughts, and rain events.

      Their early models were wrong about several things: It turns out that the cryosphere is melting much faster than predicted, more heat is pushing into deeper ocean (~700m depth) than they expected, and corals are bleaching faster worldwide than they were willing to predict.

  9. Thank You Mr. Henson for the excellent breakdown and insight into the Texas power outages; I would assume that many power plants in the deep S (Florida for example) are also not insulated for extreme cold temps which it not the norm……….This could happen again anywhere in the deep South of we get such a pronounced and long-lasting Arctic blast taking all infrastructure past their limits.

    In addition to the increased warmth in Texas as noted, research out of Texas (Texas A&M) has also documented the increasing drought issues in Texas over recent decades suggesting that T, separate from this cold dome period, is also headed towards a once in 1000 years drought conditions downstream as well in the coming decades……….Bad news for Texas as well…………..Here is the Texas drought monitor for today:

      1. “Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Predicted for American West”
        Global warming to cause historic “megadrought” by century’s end.
        By Brian Clark HowardNational Geographic
        PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 12, 2015
        Large parts of the U.S. are in for a drought of epic proportions in the second half of this century, scientists warn in a new study that provides the highest degree of certainty yet on the impact of global warming on water supplies in the region.
         
        The chances of a 35-year or longer “megadrought” striking the Southwest and central Great Plains by 2100 are above 80 percent if the world stays on its current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists from NASA, Columbia University, and Cornell University report in a study published Thursday in the new open-access journal Science Advances.
        […]In their study, Cook’s team used 17 computer models of droughts and three models of soil moisture to predict the likelihood of dryness over the next century. After they found a high degree of agreement among the models, they applied them to data gathered from tree rings going back to about the year 1000.
        http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150212-megadrought-southwest-water-climate-environment/
         

      1. The latest peer-reviewed paper says there is no increase in drought in any part of the world. The above graphic is showing less drought with time.

  10. Bob, and Dr. Jeff Masters (if he’s reading) – you often post on the financial impact of weather disasters, e.g “X event is the Y $1B+ weather disaster of the year”. Given the vast scale and scope of this disaster, one must think it will reach into the 10s, if not 100s of billions of dollars in TX alone, more across the US in total for this event. Could this even be the first $1T weather disaster?

    1. Hi, NPM. I agree this will be an enormously costly event. In Texas alone, I would not be surprised to see an economic toll well over $10B, depending on how it’s calculated. Sadly, I’d also not be shocked to see that more than 100 lives have been lost. I hope I’m wrong.

    1. From a different interview with Abbott, this one on DFW TV station WFAA: “It’s frozen in the pipeline. It’s frozen at the rig. It’s frozen at the transmission line…The natural gas providers are incapable of providing the natural gas that feeds into the generators that send power to people’s residences there in the Dallas area.”

      https://twitter.com/RyanWoodDFW/status/1362099622273970178

  11. Dear Bob,
    I have been following you from Switzerland for a long time and have a couple of articles that I think you will be interested in.
    If I can have your Email I will be happy to send them.
    Thanks for your interest
    Walter Janach,
    retired prof. of energy engineering

  12. Bob,

    This is a good article but I must take strong issue with your defense of wind turbines. It wasn’t “some turbines” that went offline, it was almost all of them. ERCOT data shows just 600MW (3.2% of installed capacity) available as the crisis ramped up. You can see that data along with my other thoughts here: http://www.mikesmithenterprisesblog.com/2021/02/the-propaganda-campaign-to-convince-us.html

    Wind energy is merely “nice to have.” As the retired SrVP says at the bottom of the above piece, it simply cannot supplant coal, NG or nuclear. If we truly wish to decarbonize (and, I wonder if many in Big Climate would prefer to have the political issue rather than actually make progress) this nation needs to go on a crash program to bring next-gen nuclear online along with many of the other things you suggest.

    Thank you for considering my comments.

    Mike

    1. Thanks, Mike. Wind energy was clearly way below its peak potential, but it’s expected that wind energy will be on the low side in Texas in winter, so that was no surprise (though obviously the non-winterized turbines that predominate in Texas were hit hard). What *wasn’t* expected was the huge dropoff in natural gas, which (still) supplies much more of Texas’ electricity in winter than does wind energy. As shown in the Dan Cohan tweet embedded above, wind energy was coming in slightly below ERCOT’s worst-case winter scenario–but more than 20X more energy was being lost by fossil fuel production knocked offline (mostly natural gas). It is distressing to see political leaders argue that wind energy is to blame for this calamity, including some who know better (as they’ve demonstrated themselves in other interviews).

      I agree that tough choices will have to be made when it comes to decarbonization. If we truly believe that addressing climate change is a top priority (which I do), then I think we ought to consider maximizing our sunk costs in current nuclear, and perhaps explore next-gen nuclear options, as argued by James Hansen and some other eminent climate scientists. On top of this, we desperately need a truly sustainable, reliable, robust national energy/grid system. See Dan Cohan’s latest tweetstorm, which is superb:

      https://twitter.com/cohan_ds/status/1362022484841693190

      1. Bob,

        As you know, I live in Kansas which is the #2 state for wind power (behind Texas). We have seen our rates go from 5% below the national average to 15% above due to wind power. It would be one thing if it were reliable but I guarantee that no politician made the point, Don’t expect wind energy to work in the winter.

        Our wind turbines had problems the last five days but the Wolf Creek Nuclear Plant has run like a top. I simply don’t understand why so many who say they want to de-carbonize hate nuclear. It makes no sense.

        Anyway, thanks again for the fine article and for the always respectful exchange.

        Mike

      2. At least one nuclear power plant failed here in Texas due to the exceptionally long-lasting cold conditions. Nuclear power plants in Europe (France and Sweden) have had to shut down during heat waves.

        Nuclear power plants are too contractually and jurisdictionally complex and expensive to do well in the US, and taxpayers are left bailing out private investors. A fiat government like China can minimize the long delays and cost overruns that are so common in the West. If China can’t do nuclear, I don’t see how the US can in its current investment environment.

      3. There are dozens of nuclear plants in the United States that do great. These include Wolf Creek in Kansas and Callaway in Missouri. They were built by private sector companies. No taxpayer money was used in their construction and, to my knowledge, none has been involved since they went on-line.

        While we would be better off if we built more like Wolf Creek and Callaway, what I am interested in is next-generation nuclear. They mitigate the waste problem and are even safer than the original first-generation nuclear (which have been incredibly safe).

      4. Hi Mike, I am interested in your statement: “We have seen our rates go from 5% below the national average to 15% above due to wind power.” What time period are you speaking about? What evidence is there that the price went up “due to wind power”?
        I would like to see a source for your assertion.
        Thank you,
        The Toddler

      5. Hey Mike, I found an article that attempts to explain your assertion. It is from the AP and about 1 year old but it states:

        The commission found that utilities Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light spent billions of dollars over the last decade on coal-fired power plants in Kansas. They also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on wind farms to comply with a now-repealed state rule for 20 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.
        Kansas decided to invest in coal when it was cheaper than gas, but the price of natural gas has since dropped, said Justin Grady, the commission’s chief accountant.

        You are aware that a billion dollars is a thousand million dollars, right? So Kansas spent BILLIONS on coal-fired power plants vs hundreds of millions on wind farms.

        Unless you have an explanation, I feel that your comment is disingenuous at best and a blatant lie intended to wrongly blame wind power at worst. Please comment.

      6. It is too bad they did not see natural gas coming. The coal plants are much more expensive to operate.

      7. Your article was from 2008. Here is a link to the article I referenced.
        https://apnews.com/article/8c31f9d076754441b12cf46d797227e6

        You put the blame squarely on wind turbines. “We have seen our rates go from 5% below the national average to 15% above due to wind power.”

        I will state again that your statement is at best disingenuous. I say that because you wrote with such certainty, there was not a hint that you had even a single doubt about the statement you made as if it was a fact.

      8. I should have made it clear that I have been seeing Republicans and Fox News talking heads claim that the Texas outages were completely due to turbines and the “Green New Deal” for a few days now. That may be why I seem agitated to you. I have been agitated for the last 5 years as I have tried to combat the lies that streamed from the previous administration and their followers. It has been an ordeal. Sorry if I offended you.

  13. Your information on La Niña needs some tweaking. The CPC is predicting a ~60% chance of ENSO neutral conditions developing during the Spring. Otherwise, well written and expounding.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Check out the latest ENSO/IRI forecast page. The latest official probabilistic forecasts (early February) do suggest the current La Niña may segue into neutral conditions for several months, but they now show a greater-than-50% chance of La Niña resurging by fall. It’s a much more La Niña-bullish outlook than the model-based forecasts from late January shown on the same page. Given this outlook, I think it’s quite possible we’ll be in borderline-cool conditions through the summer.

      https://iri.columbia.edu/our-expertise/climate/forecasts/enso/current/

  14. This is greatly needed information, and the article is so well written as usual.
    Thanks very much, Bob Henson.

  15. Weather is not the only problem with grid vulnerability. We are vulnerable to a possible EMP attack from an enemy, or cyberattack. Either can take down the grid. We need to be addressing BOTH these issues and update the grid immediately!! We need to make many changes in infrastructure to do this.

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