“It’s not yet clear how many Texans died amid the cold, but several people died after they lost power, including an 11-year-old boy. Others died from carbon monoxide poisoning as they burned fuel indoors or ran their cars in desperate attempts to stay warm. Millions lost drinking water for days.
The blackouts cost the state economy upward of $130 billion in damages and losses, and some people who did have power saw their bills spike by thousands of dollars. Grid operators say that the situation could actually have been a lot worse, with the system minutes away from a monthslong blackout.
Texas politicians have not earned much sympathy from the ordeal. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz derided California’s “failed energy policies” when the Golden State suffered blackouts last year. Gov. Greg Abbott went on television to erroneously link the power outages to the Green New Deal. Other Texas politicos blamed iced-up wind turbines for the electricity shortfall when the majority of the power losses were from natural gas.
But this was a disaster that Texas should have seen coming. The state’s power grid has been creaking for years with underinvestment, despite previous winter outages, including one in 1989 and one in 2011 under very similar circumstances. And since 2011, the Texas population has grown by more than 4 million people to nearly 30 million residents, further increasing energy demand.”
“By now, the factors behind the Texas winter blackout are well-established: The coldest temperatures in 30 years triggered a sudden spike in wintertime energy demand, while the chilly weather led to coal piles freezing, a nuclear reactor tripping offline, and wind turbines icing up. Most importantly, the state’s largest source of electricity, natural gas, suffered shortfalls as wellheads froze, icy condensation blocked pipelines, and compressor stations shut down.
Much of the remaining gas was prioritized for heating rather than electricity. In total, about 34,000 megawatts of power generation shut down, more than 40 percent of peak winter demand.
Faced with such huge a mismatch between supply and demand, grid operators initiated blackouts to relieve the grid in the hope of staving off even more outages.”
“The Texas Public Utility Commission did issue guidance for making the state’s power grid more resilient to extreme weather, including severe cold, but the guidelines were voluntary and largely ignored.
Another issue for Texas is that the state’s electricity system is deregulated and almost entirely market-driven, unlike other states that have more specific rules about how the system should be run. In Texas, retail utilities buy electricity from power providers — companies that operate power plants — at fluctuating prices based on supply and demand and then sell them to customers.
The idea was that this would allow the power system to self-regulate and self-optimize while providing lower energy prices than a more regulated market. Periods of high electricity prices would spur generators to put more electrons on the grid and vice versa.
In practice, what this system meant was that when wind and solar power were abundant, they could undercut other power generators in price since wind and solar have no fuel cost and very low operating costs. Coal, nuclear, and gas power plants were then pushed to recoup their operating costs during periods of higher energy demand while also competing with each other, narrowing the windows where they could operate profitably. That left little incentive to build up extra electricity production capacity to deal with unexpected demand spikes or supply shortfalls.
“In fact, the incentives direct you to remove capacity from the market,” Hirs said. “If I add capacity to the market, I’m ensuring lower prices.”
The system worked when energy supply and demand followed predictable patterns. But when it deviated, like it did during Winter Storm Uri, it led to outages. As for customers, they ended up paying more. According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, Texas residential electricity customers under deregulated utilities paid $28 billion more than they would have under electricity rates charged by conventional regulated utilities in the state.
So the promise of greater reliability and lower costs did not materialize for millions of Texans under the state’s free-for-all, go-it-alone energy system. “This is a collision of naïve idealism and the real world,” Hirs said. “
“While the Texas grid is unique in many respects, the problem of underinvestment in energy infrastructure is all too common throughout the US. Much of the power grid was built decades ago. In addition to the wear and tear that comes with age, the power grid is stressed by a growing population and its rising energy demands.”
“The broader problem is that every power system struggles to make the case to spend money on things that may never be used. The costs are upfront but the benefits are far away and theoretical. And that case doesn’t just have to be made to regulators, but to consumers.”
“Just like a blackout isn’t the result of any single point of failure, protecting the grid against them demands more than any single solution.
Faced with the prospect of more outages, there are a number of technical fixes: More energy storage, distributed power generation, interconnections across the major power grids, greater redundancy, microgrids, demand response, increasing energy efficiency, and hardening infrastructure.
But these things all cost money or eat into the margins of existing utilities. Trying to completely avoid all types of blackouts and grid disruptions stands to be prohibitively expensive, so part of the solution will also be managing failures and learning to bounce back after an outage.”