A record-setting polar vortex, which brought intense cold to a majority of the American heartland, has led to massive blackouts in Texas as significant amounts of generating capacity have been knocked offline.
The details of what went wrong in Texas – most likely the biggest forced blackout in US history – will take time to establish. So will exactly what to do about it.
This emergency, according to Bloomberg, already underlines something that should’ve been obvious before. As the growing threat of extreme weather puts vital economic systems at risk, climate resilience needs to be taken much more seriously – across the globe.
As of Friday, nearly 190,000 homes were still without power as Texas grappled with an unusual weather pattern that sent temperatures plummeting and demand for energy soaring.
With the local grid overwhelmed, officials resorted to rolling blackouts that at one point left millions without heat or clean water and led to at least 20 deaths.
The lack of power has cut off water supplies for millions, further strained hospitals’ ability to treat patients amid a pandemic, and isolated vulnerable communities with frozen roads still impassable in parts of the state.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said historically low temperatures were hindering efforts to inoculate people against Covid-19, with more than 2,000 vaccine sites in areas with power outages.
In addition to aiding Texas, FEMA said on Thursday it would provide assistance to the neighbouring state of Oklahoma due to the weather’s impact on its power grid.
President Joe Biden has declared an emergency and federal regulators have launched an investigation.
According to Brentan Alexander, chief science officer and chief commercial officer at New Energy Risk, Texas, appears to be suffering from an unprecedented loss of generating capacity, with early reports pointing to roughly 30 GW of primarily gas-fired capacity offline, representing more than a third of generation capacity in the state. “Some have taken the chance to blame wind and renewables for the issues plaguing the state, but it is primarily a failure of supposedly resilient fossil-fired assets that is impacting the region. Compounding matters, Texas is the lone state in the lower 48 with its own power grid and has limited ability to import power from neighbours,” he wrote in The Forbes.
Experts say evidently no-one thing went wrong. The failure seems to be systemic and multifaceted. The extreme cold shut down power from fossil-fuel and nuclear plants when instruments and pipelines froze.
As the problems cascaded through the state’s electricity grid, outages due to frozen wind turbines made a small contribution to the losses – though nowhere near as much as critics of renewable energy have claimed. The system as a whole had not been weatherised to the necessary standard.
In Texas, two other factors compounded that basic vulnerability, Bloomberg noted.
First, the state has, by design, a relatively self-contained grid. This limits its ability to draw power from elsewhere in emergencies.
Second, its lightly regulated energy producers compete vigorously on price, which leads them to economise on maintenance and back-up systems. Most of the time, the benefit to consumers is real – cheap power.
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