Are severe weather conditions portending the end of Texas’ energetic autonomy?
The nation’s leading energy producing state has been struggling to keep afloat amid freak weather phenomenons
by: Stephanie Iancu
On Sunday the 14th of February, the Lone Star State was hit full force by violent winter storms. Amid the seasonally low temperatures — that did not exceed the freezing mark for several days — and out-of-the-ordinary meteorological phenomenons, many Texans found themselves without power or heating for many hours, and in some of the worst cases, several days.
The rolling blackouts that were put in place by local transmission organizations initially planned to only last about 45 minutes before rotating to the next neighbourhood, ended up extending through the night with the entire grid on the edge of collapsing and up to 40 percent of the state’s power supply being lost. The cold also caused most of the state’s western oil and natural gas fields — which generate about half of its electricity — to freeze up or lose access to sufficient power in order to operate. Moreover, most of Texas’ local gas plants rely on ad hoc logistics and are not used to fuelling in advance or keeping any backup fuel, which only worsened the system’s upheaval.
Further damage was caused by pipes bursting inside homes, cellular networks crashing — preventing people from calling 911— and the depressurization of the water system, which contaminated a large part of the water supply. At least 30 people have died so far and there have been reports of more than 450 carbon-monoxide poisonings, due to many families running grills and generators indoors as a last resort.
Caravan houses in South Texas amidst severe weather. Photo named "South Texas Snow" is courtesy of Chuck_Honda via Creative Commons and is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Although it had been anticipated that most of the state would be seeing fewer colder days overall due to global warming, there is also an emerging line of climate science research advancing the theory that as the Arctic warms up, the jet stream — which usually keeps the cold air trapped in the Arctic — may weaken over time, causing the icy air to spill over into the North American continent.
This means that states like Texas might actually be facing more frequent winter storms in the future.
Nonetheless, further research is necessary in order to confirm this theory.
The factor that further complicates the whole weather situation is that Texas has long refused to join interstate electrical grids, justifying this decision with the fact that the state possesses enough of both supply and demand of energy to be entirely self-sufficient. The state’s large population and abundant natural gas and wind resources seemed to make it the most suitable place for such an experiment in deregulation.
The decision to deregulate the state’s electrical system was made in 1999, with the creation of a competitive market-based framework to replace the previously state-controlled grid. The decision was acclaimed by both citizens and industry leaders, who believed competition would reduce monthly costs and offer consumers a wider array of choices. But this also meant that most of Texas’ electrical grid was now isolated from the rest of the nation, making it vulnerable to disruptions, as importing power from neighbouring states was no longer a possibility.
The other downside of this newfound competitiveness was the fact that it also encouraged cutting corners in terms of weather protection and maintenance, like bypassing de-icing equipment of wind-turbines or insulation of power lines, because investing in such precautions often meant losing one’s competitive edge. According to Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter,
many of these infrastructures were thus designed with the climate of the past in mind and now find themselves ill-adapted to rapidly changing conditions.
A further negative aspect of this choice is the fact that clear regulations concerning power are no longer set in the law and that each energy competitor can make decisions autonomously, creating a chaotic mix of regulations that left both citizens and decision-makers confused and helpless in the face of last week’s cold wave.
The only attempt at regulating the system after 1999 was made with the creation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (or ERCOT), a non-profit agency under the supervision of the Public Utility Commission, that was supposed to manage the wholesale market and oversee the offers made to consumers by private transmission companies. ERCOT found itself under fire from both Democrats and Republicans alike, who widely criticized its handling of the crisis and called for sweeping reforms. Hearings will be held this week in Austin, during which state governor Greg Abbott pledged to investigate the situation more in-depth.
There were also accusations that the agency had for long chosen to ignore warning signs that such a crisis could occur, namely during the severe cold snaps in 2011 and 2018, that also caused problems for the grid. ERCOT’s leaders defended their underestimation of the crisis by blaming it almost solely on the meteorological phenomenons, adding that they did not think that there was, as stated by Bill Magness, the president and chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council, “a silver-bullet market structure that could have managed the extreme lows and generation outages that we were facing Sunday night.”
Texas’ independent electrical grid remains a source of pride for its citizens and representatives, many of which still believe that there are reform solutions available that would not imply sharing a grid with neighbouring states. Steven D. Wollens, the principal architect of the 1999 deregulation plan and former Democratic state lawmaker, expressed that in his opinion, the state legislature is currently “in a perfect position to determine the basis of the failure, to correct it and make sure it never happens again.” But in the face of these recent events, many Texans are also starting to wonder if the price of volatility may begin to outweigh that of state energetic autonomy.
Which direction the state intends to take remains to be observed in the following weeks, but what is clear is that these climate-related events will probably not be an isolated phenomenon and that there is a growing importance in ensuring that they are correctly anticipated, and resilience is increased in order to avoid further disruptions.