Energy users – all of us – may do well to pay attention to this headline: “’People should probably be worried’: Texas hasn’t done enough to prevent another winter blackout, experts say.” (Source) That may be a concern for the apartment customers of the Austin area electric meters above.
Texas is a two-level energy test for us all, however.
First, will governments and companies act after a serious energy problem like last February?
One Texas energy CEO says his company spent $50 million in 2021 getting plants ready for winter – “workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.” (Source) Still, he doubts that will do the trick in another extreme deep freeze. That is because there are vulnerabilities beyond his plants, such as questionable natural gas supplies.
No one plant or fuel is to blame for last February’s power problem, though. It was a negative collective of problems. “A total of 1,045 individual generating units – 58 percent natural gas-fired, 27 percent wind, six percent coal, two percent solar, seven percent other fuels, and less than one percent nuclear – experienced 4,124 outages, derates or failures to start. Of those … 75 percent were caused by either freezing issues (44.2 percent) or fuel issues (31.4 percent),” says the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Check the visual from the report, left, Incremental Unplanned Generating Unit Outages, Derates and Failures to Start, Total Event Area: by Cause, by Fuel Type, and by MW of Nameplate Capacity.
Individual efforts to forestall another energy emergency are important, a unified and collaborative effort is a must. Unity is a rare commodity in governing and society, unfortunately.
Don’t just listen to me: “Last month, ERCOT [the Texas regional transmission organization] conducted a less-than-reassuring assessment looking at the strength of the grid going into the winter. The state’s grid would not be able to keep up with demand even under winter conditions less severe than what happened in February, the assessment found.” (Source)
Second, will the same stakeholders place energy emergencies in a context of changing weather and climate conditions? Are people figuring February 2021 was an aberration in a static structure or likely to happen again as part of a changing system?
Last February was no subtle cue about change. The power outages created massive damage, disrupted the economy, contaminated water supplies, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds lost their lives. Early estimates indicate that the freeze and outage may cost the Texas economy $80 billion–$130 billion in direct and indirect economic loss.
One energy expert says people analyzed the 2021 February freeze, and the similar freeze that happened in 2011, and, “The challenges there and all the proposals of how to fix it that  never saw the light of day. And they think it’s, you know, if you make it through the next winter, there’s not much motivation for politicians to add costs on to the power system to consumers.”
In other words, be quiet and hope it does not happen again. He says that’s not a winning strategy, but “may well be the case. … we might skirt through a winter,” without a problem then the focus on the energy problem will dissipate.”
I agree. That would be a fool’s bet.
Texas is the focus of the energy issue as the deep freeze anniversary rolls in, but it is not a Texas-only problem. “The stakes are high, and not just for Texas, the nation’s top energy-producing state. Its winter preparedness affects customers as far away as California and Minnesota and is a test of America’s ability to deal with climate change, which is making weather more extreme, more unpredictable and more deadly.” (Source)
My take is that we have seen enough of political and regulatory chatter to know that governments delegate responsibility, but that does not guarantee common sense on behalf of consumers. Customers need to speak up to their elected officials and regulators in a smart, respectful, and educated way – demand logical action to modernize the grid and improve public safety for extreme weather situations.