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Our grid isn’t ready for climate change

Our grid isn’t ready for climate change
Sarah Golden
Fri, 02/19/2021 – 01:30

Last summer, when 750,000 Californians experienced rolling blackouts as heatwaves overtook the west, some politicians in Texas took the opportunity to blame liberal policies to explain the outages. 

This week, as ice storms overtook Texas and plunged more than 4.4 million people into freezing darkness, some Californians on Twitter were gleefully dunking on those same Texas politicians for not keeping electricity flowing during their extreme weather events. 

I get it. I understand the tribalism of politics. But at this moment, millions of Americans are freezing without power — with no end in sight. It is horrifying and beyond politics. Energy resilience, like climate change, is not partisan. It will affect every community and statehouse, regardless of who is in charge.

The battle is not between liberal and conservative states. It is between those working towards a clean, affordable resilient energy future and the politicians and incumbent energy providers that politicize it. 

The grid isn’t ready for climate change

While the grid is designed to handle spikes in energy demand, reliability is dependent on the ability for operators to predict future supply and demand conditions. 

The week’s cold snap affected both: Texans (with power) were cranking up their thermostats at the same time as gas-fired, coal and nuclear facilities were knocked offline amid the icy conditions. 

Making matters worse, the Texas transmission lines weren’t up for the challenge. So, regardless of the energy source, grid disruptions will continue as long as we rely on a grid built for a 20th-century climate.

“The situation in Texas could have happened anywhere,” said Mahesh Sudhakaran, chief digital officer for the energy, environment and utilities sector at IBM, in an email. “It exposed the importance of grid resiliency, which is something that impacts us all.”

Is renewable energy to blame for the Texas power crisis?

Hard no. It was a much larger, system-wide failure.

“The situation we’re seeing in Texas is not a challenge with electrification or renewable energy,” Sudhakaran explained. “The root of the issue is that power sources were not winterized simply because no one ever expected such extreme temperatures to occur in Texas. This created a supply and demand problem where demand far outweighed supply.”

If you want to parse out which energy sources are to blame for the 35 gigawatt power shortfall, the most significant contributor was natural gas, the go-to fuel Texans use for power and heat during peak usage. Even those with natural gas in their homes were not spared from outages. Texas Gas Service, one of the largest gas distribution services in the state, suffered from shortages due to excess demand and frozen gas wells and pipelines. 

While some wind turbines did freeze, they were a smaller part of the problem — about 13 percent of the outages, according to Bloomberg.

Of course, some anti-renewable politicians and pundits were quick to blame Texas wind and solar assets for the outages — from Rick Perry to Tucker Carlson and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) blamed the Green New Deal (despite that not being a policy). 

These claims are beyond misleading — they’re lies. But they’re not unexpected. These claims run parallel to the conversations in California during the summer of 2020, when the state faced power outages and rolling blackouts amid a heatwave. Like Texas, fossil-fuel proponents blamed renewable energy. Like Texas, natural gas plants weren’t handling the extreme weather well. And, like Texas, the grid failed to rise to the challenge of the first hints of climate chaos

Will grid outages slow the movement to electrify everything? 

Only if we let them. 

To have a chance at a safe climate future, the research is unequivocal: We must rapidly electrify buildings, transportation and industry. The question is not, “Should we go all-electric?” It is, “What will it take to become all-electric?” 

Through that lens, energy disruptions from extreme weather should be used to identify the policies and technologies needed to reach an all-electric, clean energy future. The alternative is to expand dirty energy sources that will exacerbate extreme weather, ensuring solutions will slip further and further away. 

Of course, the power outages in Texas are sure to become another PR arrow in the quiver of natural gas shills, so the movement to electrify may be slowed if that message successfully scares the public about energy security. 

But if the goal is affordable, reliable, clean energy, disasters such as this can be a valuable teaching moment. 

“If anything, the situation in Texas underscores the importance of moving to a resilient electric grid,” Sudhakaran wrote. “A resilient, electric grid gives us more options to balance a portfolio of power generation (wind, solar, conventional fuel sources) with demand (residential, commercial, EV, battery, etc.). This would allow us to optimize the balance to meet both comfort and economic outcomes for all.”

We aren’t ready for an all-electric grid just yet, but we’re on the road to get there — provided we learn from the weaknesses in today’s system and develop the collaborations needed to future-proof our electrified future. 

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Electricity Grid

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Austin winter storm

Long Lines at HEB Grocery Store on Feb. 16, following power outages and frigid temperatures. Source: Shutterstock/Wienot Films

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