AMany Texans experience another cold snap this week when a winter storm hits the state, some 50,000 people were hit by power outages in a grim reminder of last year’s big freeze in the state.
While this week’s experience likely won’t rival the winter storm of 2021 that left much of Texas in darkness and was responsible for several hundred deaths, it is a test for the state’s ability to manage the challenges of more severe weather as a result of the continuing global climate crisis.
Gov. Greg Abbott has previously come under fire for backtracking on a promise he made just two months ago that there would be no power outages this winter.
This week, as power began to fail in some Texas homesit has drawn condemnation from prominent local politicians that not enough has been done in the past year to protect Texans’ access to power.
Former presidential candidate Julian Castro told the Guardian: “Greg Abbott and the Texas Republicans sold our state’s power grid to the highest bidder, and as a result five million families lost power and hundreds have lost their lives. Rather than work to fix the grid, they let energy lobbyists write their own laws and raised millions in political donations in return. We need new leadership that will focus on modernizing our network and prioritizing sustainability, not more corrupt politicians lining their pockets with special interest money.
In a statement to the Guardian, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid, said it was taking early action to try to avoid any outages: “ERCOT will deploy all tools we have to manage the network efficiently during this winter weather.
But such statements might not allay all fears in a state where the impact of winter storm Uri – which claimed at least 246 lives – is still vividly remembered. Around this time, the grid that powered nearly the entire state began to fail, forcing energy regulators to implement blackouts in order to avoid a complete shutdown. In the end, some 4 million homes were left without power in freezing temperatures for days.
Here’s an overview of the issues, how they were resolved, and what still needs to happen:
Bureaucratic failure and improvements
As for seeing a scale repeat of last year’s disaster, experts predict Texas is better prepared for now, as some infrastructure upgrades powering the state have been done or are in progress.
But there’s still a lot to be done, according to Kenneth Medlock, an energy economist and fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He called the state’s ability to handle last year’s winter storm “a failure on all fronts.”
“[The power supply chain] was actually cut during last year’s winter storm, which contributed to the state’s downward spiral. You’ve had capability outages experienced by virtually every form of generation,” Medlock said.
In addition to being structurally unprepared for the extremely cold weather, the lack of communication between the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agencies overseeing electric, petroleum and gas, proved to be both ineffective and dangerous. .
Hospitals, for example, never had a power outage because they were automatically considered “critical infrastructure”, but other entities with an urgent need for constant electricity, such as waste management and water treatment plants, were to apply for designation. Power outages at water treatment facilities have forced nearly every major city in the state to issue a “boil water” advisory before consumption.
In order to be designated as critical infrastructure, electricity suppliers had to complete a form available on the ERCOT website. However, the form was not made public and therefore was not filled in, meaning those who needed power the most went without it when the forced blackouts began to unfold.
“It’s literally a two-page form. As long as you fill it, being considered critical means electricity can be directed to a specific consumer,” Medlock said. “The biggest failure we saw last year was bureaucratic.”
As a result of this bureaucratic failure, the PUC also unwittingly turned off the lights at natural gas facilities, which supply electricity to much of the state.
To date, most of the state’s gas supply infrastructure has been designated as critical, which prioritizes its power supply in the event of a power outage.
“That in itself adds a lot of ability to the mix that we didn’t have last winter. Even if there are no additional winterization requirements met, this will bring between 7 and 9 gigawatts of capacity back to the grid,” Medlock said.
Early warnings and bloat
In June 2021, the summer after the winter storm, the state passed Senate Bill 3, a new law “relating to preparedness for, prevention of, and response to weather emergencies, power outages, and power outages. electricity and other disasters…”
A provision of the new law mandates the creation of an emergency alert system that will notify residents of upcoming power outages via text message rather than shutting off power without notice and leaving literally millions of Texans in the noir.
More importantly, the law now requires power plants to “weatherize” or update their equipment to withstand extreme weather conditions to avoid outages in the first place.
However, these weatherization regulations do not apply to oil and gas production and distribution facilities such as wellheads and pipelines, which serve as the fuel supply chain to power plants.
“[The legislation] didn’t go far enough,” said Cyrus Reed, director of conservation for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, a US-based environmental organization. “The gas supply has not yet been necessary for wintering. Even in these recent freezes [in January 2022], we had some problems. We had some power plants in the Permian Basin that couldn’t operate because they couldn’t source gas, so that impacted power generation.
Energy market changes, higher bills
Unlike some other states that have designated utility providers, the energy market in Texas is open. This means that customers can select any electricity supplier in their supply area. Most electricity suppliers offer fixed-price contracts for a limited period. If the contract expires, customers are billed at a variable rate at the discretion of their provider.
In February 2021, that rate was astronomical because demand was so high and the suppliers Texan companies bought power from could charge whatever they wanted, engaging in price-raising practices that left some Texans whose current remained with the electricity. bills of thousands of dollars for the week of the winter storm.
Now regulators have ensured that wholesale electricity customers don’t have such high bills, but they stopped short of regulating electricity prices.
Still, energy customers – nearly all Texas residents and businesses – will see their bills rise significantly, with energy providers citing needed infrastructure updates as the cause of the price hike. .
In San Antonio, the city’s public energy provider, CPS Energy, raised its base rate by 3.85%, saying “the transfer fee will help CPS Energy recover $418 million that it already has paid in fuel costs following the winter storm of February 2021”. . Customers of private energy providers like CenterPoint, NRG or TXU, for example, could see even higher the bill goes up.
Plans using public funds to subsidize necessary and costly power plant upgrades has made no headway. Instead, customers foot the bill.
“It’s corporate welfare, basically,” Reed said.
Reed thinks the state could do more to protect customers, or rather average Texans, by also meeting high demand due to energy-inefficient building codes.
“We didn’t have enough [power] supply, but you can see it the other way around. The other thing you could say is we had too many requests,” Reed said. “Either the gas hasn’t arrived at the power stations, or the wind turbines have frozen. We have all these old buildings and old houses, some of which use resistance heaters (electric heaters)… Unlike other states, we as a state have not invested a lot of investment, objectives and programs in energy efficiency and demand response. ”
Texas’ climate future
Could Texas see another winter storm of this magnitude? Another severe “Arctic explosion” hitting the state, like the one seen in 2021, isn’t so likely, but not impossible, according to Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.
“[A big freeze is] less likely for two reasons: Arctic temperatures are warming faster than the rest of the planet. As weather conditions that lead to cold air become more common, the cold air itself will be milder.
Nielsen-Gammon said that due to global warming and rising temperatures in the Arctic, the frequency of severe weather is likely to increase, but temperatures won’t be as extreme.
“As for snow, it’s less likely to happen in the future. Also, because we are quite far south, the main determining factor is not whether we will have a storm. The question is whether it will be cold enough to snow.