Hello there, Voltron! It’s been an interesting week, hasn’t it? A guy writes a tediously long and wonky series on energy transmission and, next thing you know, transmission grids are dominating the news.
By now, the story of what happened in Texas last week is familiar: an extraordinary cold snap simultaneously a) raised demand on the grid to well higher than the grid operator’s worst-case winter projections, and b) knocked out more than 30 gigawatts worth of energy generators.
Supply and demand must be kept in perfect balance on a self-contained grid like Texas’, so when demand spiked and supply plunged, something had to give — thus the not-so-rolling blackouts.
Most of that lost generation was natural gas and coal. Freezing afflicted not only the water used in power plants but the mining, distribution, and storage of fossil fuels. And, yes, some wind turbines froze, though wind actually performed better than the modest expectations set by ERCOT, Texas’ grid operator.
I’m not going to go through the story in detail. I just want to talk a bit about what it means and what we can learn from it. To learn more about what happened, those affected, and the role Texas’s grid and regulations played in events, I recommend reading the following:
* The Houston Chronicle had a great story on the events as they unfolded and is, in general, all over it.
* In The New Republic, Kate Aronoff has a great overview, with crucial historical context for why the Texas grid is isolated and why it has an energy-only power market.
* In the Atlantic, Rob Meyer has great coverage of the Texas planning failures.
* The team at ProPublica has a piece on how Texas regulators “have repeatedly ignored, dismissed or watered down efforts to address weaknesses in the state’s sprawling electric grid.”
* In the Los Angeles Times, Sammy Roth has another great wrap-up, with a focus on grid vulnerability.
* In the New York Times, a team of journalists pulls together a great backgrounder on Texas’s unique power market structure and grid independence.
* In the New York Times, Princeton energy analyst Jesse Jenkins has a piece on the crucial failure of Texas utilities to future-proof their assets.
* In the Wall Street Journal, Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold have a story on the implications of the disaster for the energy-only market.
* In Utility Dive, Alex Gilbert and Morgan Bazilian write on what happened and what it means for Texas grid regulation.
* The New York Times’ Brad Plumer explains what climate impacts will mean for the nation’s power grids.
* At Gizmodo, Molly Taft reports on how much the oil and gas industry is paying Republicans to lie about what happened.
* And here’s the Wall Street Journal editorial board lying about what happened.
Any handful of those stories (save the last) will fill you in on what happened and why. Now let’s talk about what we can learn from it.
It was going to be bad in Texas regardless
One thing worth emphasizing up front is that Texas just faced an extremely unusual event. It got much colder, much faster, and dumped more snow and ice, for longer, and took out more energy infrastructure than even the grimmest forecasts predicted.
Yes, the state has had cold snaps before — including in 2011 and 2014, producing a set of recommendations and guidelines that state regulators made voluntary and state utilities largely ignored — but this was extreme even in context.
We’re going to touch on better planning, helpful technologies, and reformed regulatory structures, but the grim truth is that there is probably no alternative set of planners or regulations that would have adequately prepared for what took place last week. They certainly could have done better, but this event was fated to be rough.
If we’re going to start seriously preparing the electricity system for long-tail, low-probability events — the kind climate change is making more likely — it will be a new thing, not something