The Texas Winter Storm

International Mar 04, 2021

On Saturday February 20, US President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Texas in light of the severe winter weather. With record snowfall and temperatures plummeting to -18oC, the lowest in 30 years, the south-western state's energy grid was overwhelmed by a surge in demand for heat.

In a statement regarding the current state of Texas released by the White House, President Biden said he had "ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe winter storms".

on February 16th, 4.5 million households in Texas were cut off from power, as providers scrambled to deal with excess demands and tried to shuffle access to electricity so the entire grid did not collapse. Numerous deaths have been attributed to the extreme cold, with the number of families without electricity or heating seeping into the millions. Whole skylines went dark to conserve power across the state; what was supposed to be a “rolling” blackout, lasted for days. Deaths have also occurred due to motor accidents, fires lit for warmth and from carbon-monoxide poisoning after using cars’ heating systems for warmth. The storm has also put a halt in Covid-19 vaccinations and may prevent around 1 million vaccinations from happening this week.

But why did America’s energy capital fail to provide power on such a magnitude?

One explanation is that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the grid, did not accurately forecast the demand for energy as a result of the impending deadly storm. “Brownouts” the previous summer also demonstrated the grid’s lack of excess capacity. Many Republican politicians were quick to blame renewable energy sources for the blackouts. But while some wind turbines did freeze, natural gas- which accounts for around half of the state’s electricity generation, was the primary reason for the shortfall. Power plants broke down, along with the gas supply chain and pipelines. The severe cold also caused a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants to go offline. Transmission lines may have also iced up, all in all leading Texas to experience multiple equipment failure.

In addition, Texas is the only one of America’s 48 contiguous states, with its own stand-alone electricity grid—the Texas Interconnection, meaning when power generators fail, the state cannot import electricity from outside its borders. Also the state’s deregulated power market is fiercely competitive. Around 300 retail electricity providers buy the electricity produced by ERCOT-overseen grid generators and then compete for consumers. Such cold weather in Texas is rare, and so energy companies do not invest in “winterising” their equipment, which would result in prices for consumers. Importantly, the state does not have a “capacity market” (sort of insurance policy to protect from blackouts) to ensure availability of extra power for surge demand; which also means higher bills for consumers.

The disaster has made people reconsider the supposedly resilient and reliable electricity provider; especially with the realization that if the system were to be reworked it is the people who would bear the burden of increased power prices.

This article has been written by Kyra Songadwala for The Paradigm

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