The threat of further blackouts could erode fossil fuel reliability claims
Amid the dizzying temperatures, the Texas grid operator said unexpected power plant shutdowns had strained the system. Almost 80% were “thermal” generators (mostly natural gas powered in Texas) and not renewable sources.
It took almost no time for the top Republicans in Texas to inject climate policy into the state’s catastrophic February blackouts with their efforts to falsely blame this renewable energy crisis.
This week, however, news of a sudden risk of further blackouts left no opportunity for fossil fuel fans to stage a plausible repeat of the anti-renewable claims they made during and after the Great Freeze. the state.
As demand for energy hits record highs and temperatures soar, the state’s main grid operator ERCOT announced on Monday that an unusually and surprisingly large number of power plants had been taken out of service. in a short time. Collectively, the shutdowns represented a loss of about 15% of total network capacity and more than triple the outages the agency had predicted.
Nearly 80% of offline power plants generate electricity from “thermal sources,” the agency said, calling on Texans to conserve electricity. Thermal generation in Texas means natural gas (45% of electricity from the ERCOT grid in 2020), coal (18%) and nuclear (11%).
Coming just four months after the February grid crisis, the episode could further erode the credibility of long-held arguments by fossil fuel companies and their political supporters that fossil-fueled power plants are more sources of electricity. reliable than wind and solar production. On Thursday night, CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert mocked the latest problems with the ERCOT network, which serves 90% of Texas: for the Texas Electric Reliability Council. A sort of misnomer. At this point, it’s like the New Orleans Sobriety Council.
Echoing the theme of the reliability of the fossil fuel industries, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott helped lead efforts to blame renewables, especially wind power, for the February power crisis soon after. that she began to torment the Texans. The political background to his claims was clear: two days after blackouts were ordered, Abbott took to Fox News to claim that a nationwide shift from fossil fuels to renewables, as President Joe Biden had said. heavily promoted when he was inaugurated four weeks earlier, would prove “deadly.”
However, using ERCOT’s own statistics, energy experts at universities in Texas and elsewhere immediately began to refute this claim. The assessment by Rice University engineering professor Daniel Cohan was typical: Fossil fuel outages, Cohan concluded, were “the main reason electricity was cut for millions of Texans.”
Now, in a study released earlier this month, a team of energy authorities, including four at the University of Texas, confirm these early assessments from Cohan and others, saying that problems with the systems natural gas, not renewables, were indeed the “main culprit” in the February crisis.
The new study, “Cascading Risks: Understanding the 2021 winter blackout in Texas,” reports that all major fuel sources except solar failed to meet ERCOT’s expectations during the February frost, but natural gas was “responsible for almost two-thirds of the total (electricity) deficit.”
Along with a detailed analysis of the domino-like infrastructure failures that led to the cold weather crisis of the Texas power grid, the authors warn that their findings generally raise “questions of particular importance amid a climate crisis that s. ‘worsens and the need to seek a clean energy transition. “
“The energy challenges facing Texas are more salient given the threat of climate change and the emerging energy transition. While scientists aren’t sure climate change has made freezing (February) more likely by shifting the polar vortex south, climate change has implications for Texas. Texas is particularly vulnerable because it endures frost, heat waves, droughts, floods and windstorms. Therefore, it is in Texas’ best interest to prepare for a wide range of possible scenarios, including weather conditions with hotter and colder temperatures, wetter and drier conditions, and intense winds.
A mandate to take into account “weather forecasts” in the rules of resilience
After intense debate and lobbying, the Texas Legislature recently resolved the February power outages by passing Senate Bill 3, which Abbott enacted last week. Among other measures, the law will require that “critical” power plants and natural gas facilities be retrofitted (“bad weather”) to better withstand extreme weather conditions.
Joshua Busby, lead author of the Cascading Risks study and associate professor at UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, told Texas Climate News that the study’s authors urge Texas policymakers mainstream climate change in general in efforts to strengthen state power systems.
“Our team did not make climate change projections, but noted that climate change is happening,” he said. “We know that temperatures in Texas are getting warmer and hotter and are also subject to other extreme weather events made worse by climate change, such as super storms.
“If Texas simply reacted to the winter storm of 2021 by weathering its electrical system to prepare for the cold, it would make it vulnerable to other climate-related events like the heat of recent days which is testing the grid again. Texas needs to forecast the weather for the 2060s, not the 1960s, and at present we have barely made an effort to protect our climate infrastructure. “
The legislature, with both houses controlled by Republicans, refused for years to directly tackle man-made climate change, by name, and this pattern of inaction was borne out in the biennial session of this year.
Senate Bill 3, however, asked the Public Utilities Commission to design weatherization requirements (but without ordering compliance deadlines) for power generation, transmission and distribution facilities. By law, the PUC should consult with the Texas A&M University’s state climatologist’s office about its “weather forecast” when developing these rules.
But that tenure left one big question unanswered: Among weather and climate experts, “weather forecasts” strongly suggest a prospect for short-term conditions – say, over the next few days or weeks. “Climate forecasts (or projections)”, on the other hand, suggest a prospect of longer-term conditions, which scientists with a broad international consensus say are now unfolding as fossil fuel pollution warms the atmosphere. of the planet.
The “weather forecast” directive from the Republican-led legislature to the PUC, despite the usual short-term implications of this term, is it a tacit recognition that lawmakers believe long-term climate change is happening? This, particularly the contrived nature of climate change, is a scientific finding that many Texas Republicans have refused to admit.
An exchange between two lawmakers ahead of the House’s final vote on Senate Bill 3 indicates reluctance is still very evident.
Responding to a question from Democratic Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, Republican Rep. Chris Paddie of Marshall, a leader of the Legislature’s attention to grid issues, only conceded that Texas is experiencing “weather patterns. unusual ‘but wouldn’t say they’re man-made.
Reynolds: “One of the key things that I think has been missed is that we haven’t looked at whether or not climate change is having an impact on the extreme weather conditions we’ve experienced. We have experienced several hundred-year-old events in recent years. Would you agree that we also need to look at climate change? “
Paddie: “We can disagree on the causes, but I think it’s hard to argue that we are seeing unusual weather conditions. We see some of these things with more frequency, so it’s hard to deny that we obviously have to operate in these types of situations. As to the reasons for this, it is still a point of discussion.
John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist and regent professor of atmospheric sciences at A&M, told Texas Climate News this week that he had not yet been briefed on what the PUC’s request for its “ weather forecast”.
“Now that the invoice is signed, I plan to check with the agencies to see how I can be of most assistance.”
The PUC should not expect any ambiguity in its reports. In numerous public statements dating back several years, Nielsen-Gammon has squarely endorsed the international scientific consensus that climate change is predominantly man-made and warned of the extreme weather risks this trend entails facing Texas. is confronted. Senate Bill 3 gave the PUC six months to work out the new weatherization rules.
Meanwhile, Texas isn’t alone in paying close attention to heat and grid conditions this week. Amid a heatwave across much of the western United States that is unusually severe for this early summer and that has overturned high temperature records in various locations, California officials have called for a voluntary conservation of energy by residents of that state to avoid power outages.
Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News.
John Nielsen-Gammon is a member of the TCN Advisory Board. Volunteer members have no authority over our editorial decisions.