Energy Provision, Climate Change, and Structural Inequity
“For years, energy experts argued that the way Texas runs its electricity system invited a systematic failure. In the mid-1990s, the state decided against paying power producers to hold reserves, discarding the common practice across the United States and Canada of requiring a supply buffer of at least 15 percent beyond a typical day’s need.”
By now, most of the U.S. is aware that the Lone Star state was forced to cut power to around 4.4 million people (total state population: 29.4 million) Sunday night into Monday (15 Feb.) as winter storm Uri wreaked havoc across the state. Originally announced as a series of “rolling blackouts,” projected 45-minute power outages turned into hours, then days. Now there are millions of Texans who’ve been without heat / power for 1-3 days, and temperatures remain below freezing.
Where shall we start our story about the causes and consequences of this energy disaster in our most energy-rich state?
General background: Texas, in contrast to all other states in the Lower 48, runs an independent energy grid – the other states belong either to “Eastern Interconnect” or “Western Interconnect,” which make possible energy sharing among member states. Texas decided that it didn’t want to be overseen by NERC (National Energy Regulatory Commission), so ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) couldn’t “borrow” energy from its fellow states. ERCOT, which manages 90% of the state’s power supply (serving 26 million people), is under the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which is under the state legislature. The utility company which distributes energy to much of the state is ONCOR; other, smaller distributors include NRG and CenterPoint (Note: cities/counties on either Western or Eastern Interconnect did not lose power; cf., for example, El Paso)
Specific background: There was insufficient to no weatherizing of both wind turbines (which are operating just fine in Antarctica and Iowa and North Dakota, where temperatures plunged to -20 Fahrenheit in recent days) and thermal producers (mostly gas plants, which provide around 52% of the state’s power; overall, 80-90% of Texas’ wintertime energy output is still fossil-fuel generated). It was decided when the farms were built that winterizing – i.e. building in heating and de-icing functions – was too costly, i.e. it would have cut into profits. And the Texas state legislature agreed.
This, despite cold spells in 2011 and 2018 which indicated weather extremes of both types – extreme heat and extreme cold – would become more common. The cold snap in 2011 actually led to a post mortem report on ERCOT identifying as potential problems precisely what appears to have gone wrong the past several days. The report, however, was shelved.
[Note: In 2011, when the state was also hard-hit, it “borrowed” energy from … Mexico.]
What probably happened: When the weather turned very cold, consumers turned up the heat in their homes; this put an initial strain on the grid and led to requests that consumers lower their thermostats and unplug appliances they didn’t need/use. But this was insufficient (by far) to impact the collapse of the grid as the cold continued. Some hypotheses circulating as of Wednesday:
- Some thermal plants may have been offline for servicing
- Some plants’ controls may have simply frozen up; this includes failures to the electric compressors which push gas along (“icing over” apparently affected them)
- Lack of supply: here, ERCOT (and the Texas Legislature) are responsible, since they don’t hold a 15% supply of gas in reserve (an example of the just-in-time supply chain failure we saw with masks and PPE in the first wave of the pandemic)
- Inadequate or indefinitely deferred maintenance, including cutting back trees located near above-ground power lines (we recall that this was also an issue for PGE during recent wildfire seasons in California). A lot of trees fell onto power lines and caused local blackouts – something not easily corrected in frigid weather.
Leading state Republicans – including Governor Greg Abbott, and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn – are claiming that this is a result of the “unreliability” of wind turbines – but (a) that’s simply not the case (cf. above: wind turbines properly weatherized continue to operate at normal capacity in extreme cold) and (b) Texas gets a much smaller supply of its energy from wind in any case during the winter and had already lowered estimates of energy generation from wind to below wind’s actual performance on Monday-Wednesday. On Monday, around 45,000 MW went offline; of these, 30,000 were thermal (gas/coal) and only 15,000 were wind-generated (i.e., two-thirds of the loss was due to thermal plants going down; one-third to wind turbines freezing up). Texas also has nuclear power generation (two plants), but the water coolant pipes aren’t weatherized and were freezing over, leading to the risk of overheating. One plant went down.
On weatherizing: “The fact that Texas deregulated its power grid in the 1990s could also be part of the problem. Electricity market incentives are currently structured in such a way that Texas’ power companies receive more money if they don’t weatherize all their plants and shut down some of them during cold weather.” (>The Daily Poster)
An interesting sidelight: When supplies are running low and demand goes up, pricing reflects this in costs to consumers (think of it as Uber-style rush hour pricing). We note that they’ve informed people to expect bills of up to five times what they would normally pay in the winter months.
Another sidelight: The Twitter threads we’ve seen have posted pics from Tuesday – Wednesday of the some of the state’s largest cities (Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, etc.) showing their downtowns lit up like normal – while residential neighborhoods have gone without power for 24++ hours. We recall that some of that high-value real estate has been standing empty or near-empty for nearly a year – and that right now, all of it is empty.
Who’s to blame? Basically, everybody – this is an example of “systemic failure”:
“The blame goes around, from ERCOT, who ran their winter reliability scenarios with extreme load and extreme outage event scenarios that didn’t encompass what we’re seeing here, to pipeline operators that didn’t prepare their pipelines to keep operating in cold temperatures, to power plant owners who didn’t weatherize their power plants and even to people, homebuilders, and building code designers that didn’t require more insulation in buildings because you don’t need it most of the time” (Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor at Princeton University, who studies energy systems).
Consequences: As is always the case, the most vulnerable among us are the most affected by these days-long power outages caused by systemic collapse. Consider:
- The elderly: “Faced with hours without power, many residents in the state were experiencing cold temperatures inside their homes — some report indoor temperatures that are down to 40, even 30 degrees. Below normal house temperatures are a particular risk for elderly residents because they are more susceptible to hypothermia.” (Note: diabetics also suffer from hypothermia.)
- The disabled and chronically ill: “As rolling blackouts in California have demonstrated in the past few years, people with disabilities are especially vulnerable when their homes lose power. Refrigerated medications are at risk of going bad and people who rely on electrically powered aids like ventilators risk death if they can’t afford expensive backup generators in case of emergency.”
- The poor, who are majority BIPOC: “The Texas blackouts are also an issue of equity, some say. Texas Observer reporter Amal Ahmed tweeted that the blackouts will have a compounding effect on poor residents. ‘When pipes burst, renters will be the ones who have no options, at the mercy of their landlord’” Ahmed said. ‘Homeowners will have so many more tools at their disposal. That’s how the system is designed: privilege compounds.’”
- And of course, the homeless and inadequately housed: “What’s made Winter Storm Uri especially fatal in Texas is not only the arrival of an unprecedented cold spell, but the way the weather event is occurring in the context of preexisting social injustices like homelessness as well as how it is interacting with the state’s underdeveloped infrastructure, inadequate planning and regulation, and lack of emergency preparedness.”
More on the homeless and elderly:
“Latest figures show that in 2020 there were 27,229 homeless people in Texas, a jump of about 5% on the previous year. Homelessness also significantly affects communities of color more than white communities. Of the total number some 37% of homeless in Texas were Black, compared to being just 13% of the population.” [Note: that “27,229” is doubtless a significant undercount, but it’s hard to estimate by how much.]
Warming centers and new shelters are opening, and at least one public transport system (VIA, in San Antonio) is offering transportation to such centers and shelters. Another group (also in San Antonio), Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM) has been driving around the city to bring the homeless to shelters – whose space is limited due to COVID-19 restrictions on occupancy rates. And the group is now taking in disabled and elderly persons, two further vulnerable groups.
In energy matters, energy-rich Texas has always behaved like a law unto itself. The lure of sustained high profits in combination with minimal upgrades and maintenance to the various components of its practically-independent-of-the-U.S. power grid ensured the state was grossly unprepared for Winter Storm Uri and its consequences. And it’s not just consequences in terms of power / heat / water (many areas have lost water as well); Texas was under-prepared to deal with the human crises which inevitably emerged, especially for its eldest, sickest, and poorest.
The state’s energy generators (the power plants) and distributors (the companies that buy energy and distribute it over this vast state) have seen the writing on the wall: they know clean energy is coming whether they like it or not. This means they’re no longer willing (if they ever were) to invest in infrastructure, even temporary infrastructure (like winterizing power plants’ control panels) and short-term maintenance (clearing underbrush and cutting away trees from overhead power lines). And this, of course, has always been the core philosophy of the thermal (fossil-fueled) industry as a whole: grab up those profits and then vamoose.
What would have helped Texas? The Green New Deal – which, contrary to what the state’s Republican leaders are claiming, has not been implemented or indeed even passed by Congress (and it won’t be in its original form, which would have done a great deal more good for Texas in this crisis).
One other sidelight about Texas: It’s the largest state (along with Florida) not to have a state income tax. And what that means is that its coffers are running mighty low right now, especially given decreased demand for petroleum products throughout the pandemic. And which states are weathering (sic) the financial crisis of COVID-19 combined with harsh winter storms and frigid temperatures across most of the country? Why, the ones with a progressive state income tax, with California – which has witnessed no drop in state revenues over the past year – in the lead.
Ponder on that, all thee who espouse “unregulated fossil-fuel energy markets forever”.