In California, forest fires and heat waves in recent years have forced utility companies to turn off electricity for millions of homes and businesses. Now Texas is learning that deadly winter storms and intense cold can do the same thing.
The two largest states in the country have taken very different approaches to managing their energy needs – Texas aggressively deregulated and allowed the free market to flourish, while California introduced environmental regulations. However, the two countries are faced with the same ominous reality: they may be completely unprepared for the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters caused by climate change.
Power outages in Texas and California have shown that the kind of extremely cold and hot weather climatologists said will make power plants more common as greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, can be polluted and taken out of service.
The problems in Texas and California underscore the challenge the Biden administration must face in modernizing its electricity system to be fully powered by wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and other zero-emission technologies – a goal that President Biden has set himself of the 2020 campaign.
The federal government and energy companies may need to spend trillions of dollars to harden power grids against the threat of climate change and move away from the fossil fuels that are responsible for warming the planet. These are not new ideas. Scientists have long warned that American power grids operated regionally are coming under increasing pressure and needing major improvements.
“We really need to change our paradigm, especially the utilities, because they're more and more prone to disaster,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, of power outages in Texas and California. “You always have to literally think about the worst-case scenario because the worst-case scenario will happen.”
Meshkati, who served on National Academies committees investigating BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Fukushima nuclear disaster, said Mr. Biden should set up a commission to investigate the Texas and California power outages and recommend changes.
However, it is not clear how much Mr Biden can do given the limited role the federal government plays in overseeing utilities, which are mostly regulated at the state level. He may not even be able to muster a majority in Congress to push an ambitious climate plan, as Democrats are closely represented in the Senate and most Republicans strongly oppose measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In California and Texas, conservatives have blamed renewables for power outages, although energy experts, grid managers, and utilities have found that outages in solar and wind farms play less of a role than poor planning and problems with natural gas and other power sources.
That Texas and California were hardest hit shows that simplified ideological explanations are often wrong. Texas, for example, has relied on market forces to balance its power grid. When there is not enough supply, the price of electricity in the wholesale market rises, which is intended to encourage businesses to produce more electricity and businesses and consumers to use less electricity. California also has an electricity market, but it requires power generators to maintain overcapacity that can be used in an emergency. However, both systems buckled under extreme conditions.
The common theme in both states is that many traditional power plants are much more sensitive to temperature changes than the utility industry has recognized, said Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center.
“Coal and gas plants have problems in both heat and cold,” said Apt, who is also a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Last August, several natural gas-fired power plants stopped producing electricity when the Californians started up air conditioning because the equipment in the plants did not work in hot weather. Other systems had failed due to maintenance work, which many experts found strange, since electricity demand is usually highest in late summer.
Just as demand was peaking, the California independent system operator who manages the state's power grid had ordered utilities to run rolling blackouts until the system reached equilibrium. The order came so abruptly that Governor Gavin Newsom complained that the blackouts occurred “without warning or enough time to prepare.”
Regardless, California utilities have also unplugged hundreds of thousands of customers over the past few years to keep power lines and other appliances from starting fires on dry, windy days.
In Texas, many natural gas plants went offline or had to shut down this week because their equipment was frozen. Others were unable to generate as much electricity as normal because the pipelines that deliver gas to them were frozen or not getting enough gas from fields in the Permian Basin of west Texas and New Mexico, where sub-zero temperatures also hampered operations has been .
The electricity industry tends to consider average rather than seasonal annual temperatures. Changing the distribution of power sources based on seasonal temperatures could help prevent power shortages. For example, nuclear power plants generally work well in the cold but become vulnerable to heat due to the need for cooling water, Apt said.
Extreme temperatures shouldn't have surprised energy providers and network managers. Historical weather data have shown a significant increase in very hot summer days over the past few decades.
Additionally, Apt pointed out that the U.S. has had five major cold snaps since 2011, including the polar vortex in 2014, which resulted in the shutdown of nearly a quarter of the electricity available in the country's largest energy market, PJM, the mid-Atlantic Region. In some factories, coal mounds became unusable because they were frozen.
“These types of cold spells aren't particularly rare,” said Apt. “A Black Swan event – an unknown unknown – it wasn't.”
Some climatologists believe that a warming Arctic could be responsible for harsher winter storms, even if winters become milder overall.
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utility companies, acknowledged the industry faced numerous challenges, but noted that much of its work is closely monitored by state and federal officials.
“It's important to reiterate that we are the most regulated industry in the country. How we serve customers depends on the different rules and regulations set by federal and state regulators,” said Brian Reil, a spokesman the group.
Pedro J. Pizarro, president and general manager of Edison International, the parent company of California's second largest investor-owned utility, said no utility in Texas or California expected the extreme weather conditions in the two states.
“Let me start here and acknowledge that both the Texas Event and the California Event are really good examples of how we are all living with climate change,” Pizarro said. “Power grid systems must be able to deal with the new normal.”
Mr Pizarro said his company has added battery storage, which can help if demand increases in extreme weather. California has also required its utility companies to install more batteries, which are generally faster than large power plants, even though they only do so for a few hours at a time.
Legislators, residents and others are now calling for a clear account of what went wrong this week, like in California last summer, and how to avoid another day-long electricity crisis.
Some of them have criticized the Texas Electric Reliability Council, which manages the state's power grid, for failing to do more to force plants to prepare for freezing temperatures. To avoid further such failures, the Council could learn from states in colder climates in which power plants and other equipment are winterized with insulation and heating.
Some possible fixes would be useful in Texas and California. Neither state appears to have sufficient capacity to bridge the gap between supply and demand in extreme weather conditions. They may need to invest more in batteries and transmission lines to get power from other states. Texas has historically chosen not to have extensive ties with other states in order to avoid federal regulation.
States could also require some natural gas facilities to be ready to come up quickly in an emergency if there is enough gas on-site to run for several days so as not to rely on pipelines. That trust can be fatal, Texas learned this week.
Some changes are already being made. In California, regulators had allowed some natural gas facilities to be shut down, although it was clear that the gap between supply and demand was narrow on the hottest summer days and in the late afternoon, when the sun goes down and solar panels stop producing electricity. After the power outages in August, the California Public Utilities Commission delayed the closure of several natural gas-fired power plants.
Dan Reicher, founding director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, said utilities, grid managers and regulators need to get much better at planning storms, heat waves and cold weather. “If we can't work with the US network, we won't solve the climate crisis.”