Texas and California Blackouts: A Song of Ice and Fire
By Liam Denning February 16, 2021
The last thing Texas wants to hear even at the best of times — and these are not those — is that it shares something in common with California.
The causes of the enormous failure of the Texas power system during the long weekend’s arctic blast are, like the grid itself, bound to be complex and wide-ranging. We can expect a volley of jeremiads against wind power, as perhaps half that fleet stopped spinning. But with perhaps more than 30 gigawatts of thermal generating capacity tripping offline, and wind power producing about five gigawatts less than planned, this disaster clearly stretches, as Texas’ grid operator said, “across fuel types.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Texas has been here before. Almost a fifth of the capacity in the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas’ area failed in February 2011, during another unexpectedly ferocious winter snap. Apart from nuclear plants, all types of units went offline. Wind barely figured in the mix then. That was the state’s coldest winter weather since the freeze of Christmas 1989 — which was also the first time in history ERCOT implemented shutoffs to cope. Wind turbines were conspicuous by their utter absence back then.
Yet there is a common theme linking these blackouts over the past 30 years or so: harsh weather in a state unprepared for it.
This isn’t just a question of making sure components on turbines — whether they run on wind or gas — are adequately heated or have the proper antifreeze lubricants or whatever. It extends far beyond that.
After the 2011 freeze, Texas raised its cap on wholesale power prices to entice more generation to be built. Does that figure need to be raised now? Or does Texas need an outright capacity market to be instituted? Should the state rethink its island status and build more interconnections with neighboring grids? Similarly, many Texan homes are built with the idea of shedding heat rather than conserving it. Does that need to change now?
There are no easy answers because each one comes with trade-offs. When I wrote about the implications of the wildfires in northern California for the state’s grid, the question that kept coming up was “who pays for what?” Energy grids, especially the power network, are exercises in socialized costs; the billpayer in that city apartment subsidizes the otherwise uneconomic line running to that farm 200 miles away, for example. That’s the compact that electrified America.
We now face a situation in the form of extreme weather events and natural disasters that will increase in frequency and ferocity due to climate change. This will test our 20th century infrastructure built primarily with the goal — backed by price incentives — of expansion rather than conservation.