Technology Texas' woes foreshadows future climate-change disasters

00:20  19 february  2021
00:20  19 february  2021 Source:   cbsnews.com

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From California to Texas , the cost of climate change is becoming apparent. I am the Chief Science Officer and Chief Commercial Officer at New Energy Risk, where I lead the detailed diligence of novel technologies and business models across the energy landscape. I have devoted my career to advancing solutions to the climate crisis and use my experience to help technology companies assemble everything they need to reach market faster.

A few days before Texas went dark, Elon Musk appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience to tout the wonders of the Lone Star State. Austin may indeed be a harbinger of America’s future But climate change fucks with things in dangerous and unpredictable ways: when it gets hot, planes sometimes

The massive snowstorm that pummeled Texas over the weekend has put the state's unique energy challenges into stark relief. Four days after an unprecedented and deadly blackout plunged 4 million people into darkness, some 450,000 remain without power according to PowerOutage.us.

a person riding a snowboard down a snow covered slope: Deep Freeze Power Crisis In Texas Is Expanding © Bloomberg Deep Freeze Power Crisis In Texas Is Expanding

The storm, which froze nuclear facilities, coal and gas power stations, and wind turbines, offers a cautionary tale of how extreme weather can paralyze critical energy facilities and throw vast swaths of country into chaos. Across the U.S., experts says, states like Texas are largely unprepared for a range of climate emergencies, from Arctic-like cold in warmer regions to widespread flooding, droughts, wildfires and other symptoms of a rapidly heating planet.

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Now, climate change is only making extreme weather more extreme. Meanwhile, Madlin Mekelburg of the Austin American-Statesman found that at least a third of the board that controls Texas ' grid doesn't even live in state. And, Bloomberg writes that, while some wind turbines The freak cold spell that has killed at least 21 Americans and shut down power for days in Texas has revived scientific discussion over whether climate change could be delivering this week's chill. Scientists say global warming – specifically the rapid warming of the Arctic – is a possible, if not likely, culprit in the extreme weather.

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"This is a large-scale emergency," said Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We're seeing the consequences of insufficiently considering climate impact on the grid. At the same time as grid operators underestimated potential for peak demand … they also insufficiently estimated potential for outages."

Fossil-fuel failure

While energy grids can typically handle large swings in consumer demand, the surge caused by the storm that struck Texas was outside even the most pessimistic projections of its grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). At the same time, intense cold in the region caused power production to seize up.

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“The future is not going to be like the past,” says Melissa Finucane, a co-director of the Rand Climate Resilience Center. “If we could just plan a little better, we could anticipate some of these problems.” These climate -linked disasters , and their fallout, will be increasingly difficult to manage as global warming intensifies, creating an existential threat for many communities that are most exposed to the effects of the changing climate . In Texas , many have questioned whether parts of Houston built on the floodplain can survive increasingly intense hurricanes.

The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms. Credit: Left - Mellimage/Shutterstock.com, center - Montree Hanlue/Shutterstock.com. Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time. - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to

Greg Abbott et al. wearing military uniforms: Blame game ongoing over Texas power outages 02:37 © Provided by CBS News Blame game ongoing over Texas power outages 02:37

Analysts put much of the blame for the blackouts in Texas on natural gas facilities, which provide two-thirds of the state's winter power and heat about 40% of its homes.

"By far the biggest outages have come from our natural gas plants," said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. "A portion were down for scheduled maintenance. Others weren't designed to operate reliably in extreme cold weather, and others haven't been able to get enough natural gas supply."

The sub-freezing temperatures stopped production at gas fields in Texas and Oklahoma while damaging pipelines that transport natural gas over long distances. All told, 40% of Texas' natural gas capacity was offline over the weekend just as millions of residents were relying on it most to warm their homes.

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"How did climate change become so politically polarized?" Hayhoe asks. "It's not the science, it's the solutions. We've been told that the only solutions to climate change are negative or punitive. Blurred by this message, she says Americans miss how much progress is happening between disasters . "They don't know that 70% of new electricity being installed around the world now is clean energy. They're unaware that solar energy plus storage is actually cheaper than natural gas in California.

Natural disasters have become extremely commonplace all over the world. It is not clear if climate change has a role in this but we may have to adapt to catastrophes striking more often, say experts. The flooding of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed that rich countries can also be hit badly by extreme weather events. But these countries are in a better position to take preventive action or deal with the impact of climate induced disasters . In poor countries the situation is different, because they can only do little to prepare and defend against the impacts of extreme weather.

That number was double the number of outages that ERCOT had planned for in a worst-case scenario, according to Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University.

Other Texas power generators also were hit by the wintry weather. Frozen instruments shut down coal plants and a nuclear reactor in South Texas, and wind turbines froze over or were turned off to protect them from the cold. Snow and ice also downed transmission lines, further snarling the system.

  • Don't blame wind turbines for Texas' historic power outages

Get used to the polar vortex

The polar vortex, a weather pattern that originates in the Arctic, is increasingly descending to lower latitudes. Scientists say global warming caused by humans is partly responsible for shifts that bring glacial weather to more southern climes and keep it around longer, although this research is still debated.

And severe weather is becoming more common, whether it's severe cold in southern states or the intense heat wave in California last year that fueled deadly wildfires.

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"There probably needs to be better planning, because we're starting to see more extreme weather events across the country,″ Sara Eftekharnejad, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University, told the Associated Press.

But preparing Texas' grid for frigid weather would be a drastic change for an energy system designed for peak strain in sweltering August.

"There are other parts of the country where this type of weather is just a normal Tuesday, and they can deal with it," said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin.

"We don't insulate our houses down here as well as they do up north," said Rhodes, who spoke with CBS MoneyWatch from a friend's residence after his own home lost power. "We don't winterize our pipes as well as they do up north because we so rarely, if ever, need them to be [frost-resistant]. Now maybe we do need to."

Paying for those improvements will be a challenge in Texas' hyper-competitive energy market. Electricity producers in the state are incentivized to sell power as cheaply as possible, and cannot easily pass on the cost of improvements, such as insulation, to their customers.

"In Texas' deregulated electric market, generators are responsible for investment in their plant, just like any other facility. If a new factory needs to develop a new product for a market, that's just the cost of doing business," Dan Woodfin, ERCOT's senior director of operations, said this week.

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Critics have said this price structure dissuades power producers from investing enough to keep their facilities running during extreme, if relatively rare, events like this weekend's storm.

"Texas is an island"

Another solution could be to import power from neighboring states. Currently, Texas operates its own electrical grid, separate from the bulk of the continental U.S. That means it can't import power when crisis strikes.

"Texas is an island," Rhodes said. "There are parts in the Northeast that have plenty of power right now — they just can't get it to us."

Research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that connecting the primary U.S. electrical grids would make it easier for the country to handle localized outages by sharing power across regions. It would also make it much cheaper to reach decarbonization goals.

El Paso, Texas, which is on a different grid than the rest of the state, largely kept its power on despite seeing the same bone-chilling temperatures. About 3,000 electricity customers had an outage lasting less than five minutes, CBS 4 reported. And while the Great Plains and Midwest also saw rolling blackouts, they were far smaller than in Texas, in part because the grid in the Midwest was able to pull electricity from a grid in the East, according to the American Council on Renewable Energy.

"During the height of power outages this holiday weekend, over 5 million Midwestern homes saw their lights stay on due to seven gigawatts (GW) of electricity shared from a regional grid in the East," ACORE said in a statement. "Building out more high-capacity interregional lines is an essential part of the effort to ensure grid reliability in an era of climate change."

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No backup

Some analysts also blame the massive blackout on Texas' unique and competitive energy market.  Because producers are only paid for power they can sell, Texas lacks so-called capacity markets, in which some power generation is kept on hand as a backup "to be there in case they are needed," Rhodes said.

a crowded beach on a sunny day: Frigid temperatures devastate Texas power gri... 03:56 © Provided by CBS News Frigid temperatures devastate Texas power gri... 03:56

This weekend's power failures are likely to bring back calls for capacity markets. Still, given how gas and coal plants have struggled during the cold snap, even having extra generating capacity on hand likely wouldn't have prevented the extensive blackouts, Rice University's Cohan told CBS MoneyWatch.

"There have been arguments that fossil fuels are necessary for resilience. I think this shows that that's an argument that needs to be interrogated," said McNamara of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She is one of many energy experts who are advocating for more distributed power generation as a way to hedge against inevitable extreme weather events.

Preparing for the future

In a future likely to feature more destructive storms potentially causing more damage to infrastructure, some power outages are inevitable, experts warn. Rather than relying on centralized large power plants, they advocate investing in backup power in the form of battery storage run by utilities and individual homes.

In such a scenario, if a central power plant stops operating, each neighborhood or block could have a source of power and heat for emergencies.

"The power will go out, but it's the magnitude of the outage and the duration of the outage that has such an impact and consequences for people at the end of the line," McNamara said.

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The technologies and financing needed are either already in place or within reach. The main missing ingredient needed now is evolution in our thinking and policy discourse. The $6 billion allocation for climate restoration research and development in the last stimulus package drew fire from some environmental groups who fear cleaning up atmospheric carbon will only give fossil fuel companies a license to pollute more. But that's old thinking, born of 50 years of fighting to hold polluters accountable. No one is proposing a stop to that.

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