How one Texas storm uncovered an power grid unprepared for local weather change
WASHINGTON – A devastating winter storm that plunged Texas into an electricity crisis offers warning signs for the US as the Biden government prepares for a future where extreme weather is more risky and America is run almost entirely on renewable energy.
Power generation is a challenge. However, an equally daunting task is storing renewable electricity for extreme events like the one in Texas.
In Texas, the center of a wave of outages in the south and central parts of the United States, the primary power grid suffered a one-two-two result caused by freezing: the demand for power off the charts when Texans tried theirs Electricity to heat houses and power plants that simply didn’t produce electricity when people needed it most.
Wind and sun, still quite small parts of the state’s energy mix, played only a minimal role in the sudden electricity shortage, energy providers said – unlike a wave of conservative critics who tried to falsely blame the renewable energy situation.
Still, the Texas crisis is a wake-up call, indicating that the US electrical infrastructure may not be fully prepared to absorb steep climatic spikes in electricity demand. The challenge is likely to grow as the US relies more on wind and solar power, known as “intermittent” sources, as it is exposed to the whims of the weather and does not produce electricity around the clock.
Electricity regulators said the US needs to develop huge supplies of electricity storage – such as gigantic batteries – based on new technologies that have only recently become economically viable and feasible on a large scale.
“For batteries to play the ultimate backup system, we’re so far removed from being funny,” said Jim Robb, CEO of North American Electric Reliability Corp., a regulatory agency, in an interview. “To truly achieve the vision we would like to achieve, a heavily decarbonized electrical system, batteries need to be used on many scales beyond what we have now.”
North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday that it was launching a joint investigation into what went wrong to trigger such widespread failures in the South and Midwest. As of late Tuesday, more than 3.5 million customers were without power, the vast majority in Texas, according to tracking site poweroutage.us.
The picture of what went wrong in Texas is incomplete. While some wind generators went offline as icy turbines, the state’s largest power grid, the Texas Electric Reliability Council, said the shortage was due to a failure of non-renewable sources but rather traditional “thermal” sources: coal, nuclear, and especially natural gas. Energy experts said gas pipelines supplying gas-fired systems may be frozen or that supplies to the systems have been limited as gas has been prioritized for homes that rely on gas for heat.
Utilities in Texas had planned what to expect in the event of winter peaks, taking into account the possibility of outages and lower wind input. The surge in demand during the storm exceeded the operator’s highest estimate of just over 67,000 megawatts needed for extreme peak loads. And 34,000 megawatts went offline, which reduced supply, said the Texas Electric Reliability Council.
Texas produces more electricity than any other state, but only about a quarter of it comes from wind and sun, data from the US Energy Information Administration shows.
President Joe Biden, in an executive order signed in his second week in office, set the goal of zeroing carbon emissions from U.S. power generation by 2035, a goal that will require the U.S. to rapidly shift towards renewable energy sources and even away from the U.S. would use cleaner fossil fuels like natural gas.
However, these fossil fuels are also the point of contact for generating surpluses and backups, also because they can be ramped up relatively quickly. This includes the capacity of the “spinning reserve”, in which power plants are already online and can supply the electricity grid with electricity almost instantly, like a tap, when demand subsides.
Proponents of fossil fuel conservation have used this flexibility to make an argument for reliability. A Wall Street Journal on Monday on the situation in Texas said: “Here lies the paradox of the left’s climate change agenda: the less we use fossil fuels, the less we need them.”
Another emerging option could ensure reliability without forcing the US to resort to coal, gas and other carbon-intensive energy sources that contribute to climate change: energy storage devices that store electricity from renewable sources and then feed into the grid are needed.
For years, excess electricity from power generation has been used to pump water behind dams where it can be briefly released and converted into hydropower, turning the system into a massive battery.
More recently, technology for building actual batteries that can store electricity of the magnitude required to power a large electrical grid has made rapid strides in both capacity and affordability. Major projects are underway 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”.
However, these solutions can still only deliver a tiny fraction of the power consumed, and almost the entire supply chain for manufacturing these storage units is located overseas. In addition, traditional lithium-ion batteries, which are also used in electric vehicles, can only pump out electricity at maximum power for a few hours, far less than the long distances or even days required to compensate for weather-related peaks in demand.
However, the development of technologies, including hydrogen units and flow batteries, could address some of the shortcomings as the US approaches 2035, the year the Biden government says carbon emissions should be eliminated from electricity supplies.
Omar Al-Juburi, an Ernst & Young partner who deals with energy markets and grid technology, compared the rapid development of large-scale battery storage with that of solar modules, which were exorbitantly expensive for years before costs dropped dramatically. From 2015 to 2018, the cost of supply-scale battery storage fell by almost 70 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“All the indications are that capacity will continue to rise, costs will fall and profitability will increase,” said Al-Jaburi. “Storage isn’t going to solve all of your problems until 2035 or any time, but it will be a major player.”
As a candidate, Biden included investments in battery storage as part of his proposal to spend $ 2 trillion on building more modern and cleaner US infrastructure. His government is expected to move on to the ambitious agenda this year once its first spending priority, a Covid-19 bailout package, is finalized.
“Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and changing climates will be essential in creating millions of well-paid union jobs, creating a clean energy economy, and achieving the President’s goal of a net zero Emissions future to reach 2050, “said White House spokesman Vedant Patel.
While no single weather event can be attributed solely to climate change, the deadly cold struck Texas was the most recent reminder of how extreme weather conditions can push the delicate network of power generators and transmission lines that make up our electrical grid past its breaking point. In California, extreme summer heat waves have kinked the system on the other end, forcing power outages when record demand for air conditioning overwhelms the system or fear of triggering forest fires in strong winds prompts utilities to shut down the lines.
Although Texas experiences extreme winters rather than warmer temperatures, some climate analysts believe that climate change could also play a role in the intense cold and storms in the southern United States, a phenomenon that could persist or worsen. Rising temperatures in the Arctic can reduce the jet of air, which acts as a kind of buffer for the polar vortex, and prevent the cold air from tumbling south.
However, network operators can only plan for peaks and surges that they expect. This is a job of analyzing past trends and extrapolating predictions that are becoming increasingly difficult, said Michael Craig, who teaches energy systems at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.
“We are in a transient world. Climate change means it is not stationary,” said Craig. “The past 40 years may not reflect what is in store for the pike in the next 40 years.”