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Energy & Environment

After Electric Grid Failure, Advocates Want Texas To Plan For Climate Change: 'It Is Happening Right Now'

The River Walk in San Antonio covered by snow morning of morning of Monday, Feb. 12, 2021.
Steve Short
/
Texas Public Radio
The River Walk in San Antonio was covered by snow Monday.

At least 2 million Texans lost power on Monday, during one of the worst winter storms in state history. The recurring, rolling blackouts lasted a few minutes for some and several hours for others.

During a Monday morning press conference, officials with the state’s electric grid operator — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) — described the events leading up to the statewide outages.

First, the state saw record demand for power between 7 and 8 p.m. Sunday evening.

“Then, after that peak — beginning around 11 p.m. — multiple generating units began tripping offline in somewhat rapid progression due to the severe cold weather,” said Dan Woodfin, the Senior Director of Operations for ERCOT.

As the units went offline, ERCOT began drawing power from “additional resources” used in the event of energy emergencies.

“So, we used those additional resources. However, additional generation tripped offline as the evening progressed, so that by 1:25 this morning, ERCOT entered its third and highest level of this energy emergency alert plan,” Woodfin said. “At that point, the electric demand was really just exceeding the available supply.”

The rolling blackouts were initiated and have not stopped as of Monday evening.

The intentional outages stemmed from a basic problem of supply and demand. The historic storm knocked many power production sources offline as demand from customers surged. The grid couldn’t handle the load.

“All energy sources struggle during this kind of event,” said Doug Lewin, an energy and climate consultant. “We need to plan for that. Does that mean we need to better weatherize and insulate our power plants? Power plants in Canada work during the winter because they spend the money to weatherize. Do we need to spend that money to weatherize? There's costs associated with that, so there's a policy discussion to be had there.”

In multiple press conferences throughout the day, officials from various agencies referred to the weather as “unprecedented” and “once-in-a-generation.”

But extreme weather has become more common in Texas in recent years. Houston has seen multiple so-called “100-year” and “500-year” floods over the past decade. Other parts of the state have struggled with periods of extreme heat and drought.

Lewin said the state needs to start preparing for more extreme events.

“As soon as we get on the other side of this thing, we really need to, as a state, get serious about planning ahead for climate change,” he said. “People have always thought about climate change as being something that's going to affect the next generation. That clearly is no longer the case. It is happening right now.”

While Lewin and others continue to raise the alarm, many state-level leaders in Texas deny the reality of climate change.

Cyrus Reed is the interim director of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, and he sits on ERCOT’s reliability operations subcommittee.

“I think there are a lot of staff at ERCOT and people who understand that the climate is changing and there's a need to develop a more resilient structure and anticipate that,” he said. “I don't think that's the case at the highest political level. And so you've got, you know, from the governor on down — commissioners at different agencies — have not incorporated that thinking into their planning.”

As hundreds of thousands of Texans lost power due to the dramatic drop in power supply, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted, “The Texas power grid has not been compromised.”

Abbott said that several natural gas and coal generators had been unable to generate power because of the freezing conditions. Several wind turbines were also frozen, but even so, ERCOT data showed that wind-driven power exceeded expectations.

Reed said that there are problems to address throughout the energy supply chain, but that “The future is probably in storage — storing that energy when we have sufficient capacity, you know, storing it in batteries or other resources — and then using it when we need it. Not saying it would solve all the problems, but I think it's clear it would help.”

He also said the power grid isn’t the only infrastructure vulnerable to climate change.

“I think it's becoming apparent to a lot of people that the climate is changing,” he said. “And we need to pay attention, be more resilient and adapt.”

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