Science

How one Texas storm exposed an energy grid unprepared for climate change


WASHINGTON — A devastating winter storm that has plunged Texas into an electricity crisis offers warning signs for the U.S. as the Biden administration seeks to prepare for a future in which extreme weather is a greater risk and America is almost entirely powered by renewable energy.

Generating energy is one challenge. But an equally daunting task centers on storing power from renewable energy for extreme events like the one hammering Texas. 

In Texas, the center of a wave of outages across the Southern and central parts of the U.S., the primary electric grid suffered a one-two punch wrought by the deep freeze: off-the-charts demand for power as Texans tried to heat their homes and power plants that simply failed to produce power when people needed it the most.

Wind and solar, still fairly small slices of the state’s energy mix, played only a minimal role in the sudden power shortage, utility officials said — contrary to a wave of conservative critics who tried to falsely pin blame for the situation on renewable energy.

Still, the Texas crisis is a wake-up call that exposes how the U.S. electric infrastructure may not be fully prepared to absorb steep climate-related spikes in demand for power. The challenge is likely to grow deeper as the U.S. relies more on wind and solar power, known as “intermittent” sources, because they are subject to the whims of the weather and do not produce electricity 24 hours a day.

Electric grid regulators said the U.S. will have to develop vast supplies of power storage — such as gigantic batteries — that rely on emerging technologies that have only recently started becoming economical and feasible on a large scale.

“For batteries to play the ultimate backup system, we’re so far away from that it’s not funny,” Jim Robb, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a regulatory body, said in an interview. “To really make the vision that we like to get to, a highly decarbonized electric system, you’re going to have to have batteries deployed in many orders of magnitude beyond what we have now.”

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday that they were launching a joint inquiry into what went wrong to trigger such widespread outages across the South and the Midwest. As of late Tuesday, more than 3.5 million customers were without power, the vast majority in Texas, according to the tracking site poweroutage.us.

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The picture of what went wrong in Texas is incomplete. But while some wind generators did go offline as turbines iced over, the state’s largest grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the shortage was driven by a failure not of renewable sources but of traditional “thermal” sources: coal, nuclear and especially natural gas. Energy experts said that gas lines supplying gas-fired plants may have frozen or that supplies to the plants may have been limited as gas was prioritized for homes that rely on gas for their heat.

Utility officials in Texas had planned for what they expected they might need in the case of winter peaks, factoring in the possibility of outages and lower wind input. The surge in demand during the storm outpaced the grid operator’s highest estimate of just over 67,000 megawatts needed for an extreme peak load. And 34,000 megawatts were kicked offline, diminishing supply, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said.

Texas produces more electricity than any other state, but only about one-quarter of it comes from wind and solar, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show.

President Joe Biden, in an executive order signed in his second week in office, set a goal to zero out carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power generation by 2035, a target that would require a rapid U.S. shift toward renewable energy sources and away from even the cleaner fossil fuels, such as natural gas.

Yet those fossil fuels also tend to be the go-to sources for surplus and backup generation, in part because they can be ramped up fairly quickly. That includes “spinning reserve” capacity, in which power plants are already online and can add power to the grid like a faucet almost instantaneously as demand ebbs and flows.

Proponents of preserving fossil fuel have seized on that flexibility to make a reliability argument, with a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday on the Texas situation declaring: “Herein is the paradox of the left’s climate agenda: The less we use fossil fuels, the more we need them.”

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But another emerging option could ensure reliability without forcing the U.S. to revert to coal, gas and other carbon-intensive energy sources that contribute to climate change: energy storage, in which electricity from renewable sources can be stockpiled and then released onto the grid when it is needed.

For years, excess electricity from power generation has been used to pump water behind dams, where it can be released and churned into hydropower at short notice, in effect turning the system into a massive battery.

More recently, the technology to build actual batteries that can store power on the magnitude needed to help power a major grid has rapidly advanced both in capacity and in affordability, with major projects rolling out in California and an ambitious plan in Saudi Arabia to power an entire resort with what has been billed as the “world’s largest battery storage facility.”

But those solutions are still able to supply only a tiny fraction of power consumption, and almost all of the supply chain for making those storage units is overseas. What’s more, traditional lithium-ion batteries, also used in electric vehicles, can pump out electricity at their maximum output for only several hours at a time, far less than the long stretches or even days that might be needed to compensate for weather-related spikes in demand.

But developing technologies, including hydrogen units and flow batteries, could begin to address some of the shortcomings as the U.S. approaches 2035, the year the Biden administration says carbon emissions should be eliminated from the power supply.

Omar Al-Juburi, a partner at Ernst & Young who consults on energy markets and grid technology, likened the fast development of large-scale battery storage to that of solar panels, which for years were exorbitantly expensive before costs came down dramatically. From 2015 to 2018, the cost of utility-scale battery storage dropped by almost 70 percent, the Energy Information Administration has said.

“Every indication is that it will continue to increase in capacity, decrease in cost, become more commercially viable,” Al-Jaburi said. “Storage won’t solve all your problems by 2035 or any date, but it will be a major player.”

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Biden, as a candidate, included battery storage investments as an element of his proposal to spend $2 trillion building a more modern and cleaner U.S. infrastructure. His administration is expected to turn to the ambitious agenda this year as soon as his first spending priority, a Covid-19 relief package, is complete.

“Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will be playing an integral role in creating millions of good-paying union jobs, creating a clean energy economy and meeting the president’s goal of reaching a net-zero emissions future by 2050,” White House spokesman Vedant Patel said.

Although no single weather event can be attributed solely to climate change, the deadly cold that slammed Texas was the latest reminder of how weather extremes can push the delicate web of power generators and transmission lines that make up our electric grid past its breaking point. In California, extreme summer heat waves have buckled the system from the other end, forcing blackouts when record demand for air conditioning overtaxes the system or fear of sparking wildfires in high winds leads utilities to shut the lines down.

Although it is extreme winter, not warmer temperatures, that is affecting Texas, some climate analysts believe that climate change may be playing a role, as well, in the intense cold and storms ripping through the Southern U.S., a phenomenon that could continue or worsen. Rising temperatures in the Arctic may be diminishing the jet stream of air that serves as a sort of buffer for the polar vortex, keeping the frigid air from plunging south.

But grid operators can plan only for peaks and surges that they see coming, a task of analyzing past trends and extrapolating predictions that is only growing more difficult, said Michael Craig, who teaches energy systems at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“We are in a nonstationary world. Climate change means that it is not stationary,” Craig said. “The last 40 years might not be reflective of what’s coming down the pike the next 40 years.”



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