At the height of winter storm Uri in February, at least 4.5 million Houses in Texas were without electricity. As blackouts scattered the state and surrounded urban centers like Fort Worth, Austin, Dallas and Houston, Texans were forced to get creative to get by. Some, left without heat, used their ovens and cars to stay warm. Others, left without clean water, boiled what came out of their taps and melted the snow.
The outages were a way for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, to reduce the load on a energized energy system. As it rushed towards total collapse, “load shedding” (strategic power cuts to reduce grid usage) was the only way to keep the entire system from shutting down, operators said.
And while demand on the grid at the time was unprecedented, the temperatures that warranted it were not. Texas was not prepared for a weather event that regulators had seen it coming for ten years. Weatherization, strategic crisis communication and communication of regional transmission connections could have mitigated some of Uri’s worst effects, according to 10 energy experts and co-authors of a new retrospective report on the causes of the grid outage in Texas, published this month in Energy research and social sciences.
“The causes were sort of this unfortunate perfect storm,” said Kyri Baker, study co-author and assistant professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Some were bad forecasts, others were not winter, even if a similar event happened in 2011 …. a lot of it could have been avoided.
All power sources feeding the Texas grid, except solar, underperformed the capacity ERCOT expected to be able to handle, the report notes.
The report looked at two different metrics: expected normal energy capacity and energy capacity in an “extreme scenario”. Natural gas and coal significantly underperformed both normal expected energy capacity and expected capacity in an extreme scenario. Wind power underperformed expected capacity under normal circumstances, but outperformed what was expected in an “extreme scenario”.
These results contrast sharply with the claims the Texas grid failures were solely the fault of frozen wind turbines. “It was cold last night and the windmills froze, and as a result millions of Texans are freezing,” the Fox News correspondent said at the time of the blackouts. (This claim was quickly demystified, but the persistent network shortages in Texas Last week resurfaces fears that faulty wind turbines could be the source of ERCOT’s woes; reports like this continue to dispel this myth.)
“If you are someone who is planning to make big investments in energy, you are probably going to do your research and read between the lines, and see that the wind has not been as bad as people claim.” , said Baker.
Instead, the natural gas system responsible for 46% of Texas energy found supply chain failures in four places: freezing in natural gas wells and gathering lines, failures at compressor stations and equipment failures at power plants, according to the study .
This created what they call a “vicious cycle,” in which the state’s gas and electricity systems were unable to support each other. The gas is burned to generate electricity, which is then used to support systems that produce gas, and so on. With both disrupted, the state’s network collapsed within minutes of the collapse, the authors write.
“Gas was expected to be a reliable source,” says Baker. “Usually there is no problem pumping it to the power plants, but because of all these things the gas has seriously underperformed, so we had a huge deficit. “
With investments in wintering, among others, Texas could have prevented this “vicious circle” at the origin of the blackouts, notes the newspaper.
For wind turbines, this could mean strategic de-icing of the blades; for gas wells and production infrastructure lines, this could mean insulation and tracing (in which an electric heating element is installed throughout an appliance and turned on to maintain its temperature). Notably, only six percent of Texas oil and gas wells produce 60 percent of the state’s gas; these measures could therefore be applied to a small part of the state to have a generalized impact.
Baker trusts one of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s two bills signed in law on June 8, forcing power plants to withstand inclement weather to avoid future grid outages like the one in February. But that, on its own, is not enough to completely prevent blackouts: where supply-side reforms are not possible, demand-side work is needed, says Baker.
This means communicating clearly with Texans about grid tension, requesting demand reductions if necessary (as ERCOT has done Last week, when the grid experienced a peak in demand during a heat wave) and by encouraging the use of automated grid response tools, such as smart thermostats, which reduce consumers’ energy use when utilities see peak demand. (The latter was controversial among those who fear the government or utilities will control their devices for them, but Baker believes these tools are effective and will be essential in reducing the risk of future outages.)
“It’s unfortunate that you have to be in a 78 degree house, but the power outage could literally kill people,” Baker said. “Keeping the system alive is something I think the average person probably doesn’t have a good grasp on because ERCOT hasn’t really explained why we’re being asked to sacrifice.”