Sunday, February 28, 2021

Texas: A Cautionary Tale

                                                                                                   written 21 February 2021

                                                                                               published 28 February 2021



            The crisis in Texas was created by bad governance, rooted in two big lies and a fanatic obsession.  The big lies are that government regulations are always bad and that climate change is a hoax.  The obsession prioritizes short term, lowest bidder profits over every other social value.

            The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) formed in the 1970's to organize power within the state.  Current production is 50% natural gas, 25% wind, 14% coal, with nuclear, solar, and hydro making up the rest, for a total of about 120,000MW.  Summer heat is normally their largest electrical load, so essential down time maintenance is done during the winter, which is also a slack time for wind production.  ERCOT weather forecasters predicted the expected cold weather would require about 67,000MW and figured they would have about 80,000MW capacity available, which should have been adequate.

            Strong polar vortexes are occurring more frequently due to climate change.  The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, destabilizing the jet stream, letting it wander more widely, bringing cold Arctic air further south.  This polar vortex was colder than anticipated, covered more area, and lasted longer.  Electric heat in Texas is generally older and less efficient, so the actual load was greater than anticipated.  

            ERCOT has kept electricity unregulated, which maximizes utility profits, encourages construction of the cheapest generation systems, and keeps the overall system size very lean, with reduced reserve capacity.  Preparing infrastructure for cold is expensive, and in the deregulated Texas market the extra cost was discouraged, so the state was vulnerable and their power systems froze.  

            The gear boxes in a third of the wind turbines locked up.  Stored piles of coal froze into useless boulders.  Gas pipelines and generators froze.  One nuclear plant went off line due to frozen instrumentation.  Consequently, only 40,000MW of generation was available to meet over 70,000MW in demand. 

            Long standing choices by Texas governance made the situation worse.  Texas has always prided itself on independence and self-reliance.  As the national electric grid became formalized in 1935, Texas decided not to join interstate connectivity in order to avoid any Federal regulations.  In other parts of the country, emergency electricity can be imported over grid interconnections, but the intentional isolation of Texas precluded that option.

            The extreme mismatch between supply and demand could have damaged the entire system, requiring months to repair, so the grid was shut down, replaced with rolling black outs, creating a cascading crisis.  After the heat failed, water systems froze, resulting in burst pipes, wide spread property damage, and the loss of overall water pressure, creating problems for hospitals and fire fighters.  Cell towers ran out of backup power, causing communications problems.  Gasoline and food supplies were curtailed, rationed, or depleted.  

            This crisis was not unexpected because a polar vortex had frozen the Texas grid in 1989, and again in 2011.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did an extensive investigation in 2011, with recommendations for how to harden the grid against cold.  Power is reliably generated in cold climates, so the solutions are simple and known.  Wind turbine gear boxes and critical gas infrastructure have insulation and heaters installed.  Coal piles have antifreeze added.  Water pipes are buried deep or insulated.  Everywhere else in the nation, these would have been requirements to allow interstate commerce.  But since Texas is separate, Republican leadership just ignored the report.

            Rather than deal with reality, Texas governor Abbott declared on Fox news that this crisis was due to failure of wind turbines, which were then referred to as "liberal fashion statements".  Senator Cruz flew his family to Cancun for a break during the worst of the crisis.  One mayor told Texans freezing in their homes that "no one owned them anything".  In the unregulated Texas market, electricity prices spiked 100 fold, profiting more in two days than the normal annual total, so those Texans that were lucky enough to still have power will pay through the nose for it.  This is what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism", where a few profit from the suffering of the many.

            Our changing environment requires investment in power resilience, with costs over and above the immediate needs, in order to ensure an enduring, viable society.  Real governance, at the local, state, and federal levels, understands this.