There have been many opinions flying around about what is happening in Texas, and a few comprehensive explanations bolstered by  the available information instead of agenda-serving, cherry-picked data. The precise nature of the fuel mix and the sequence of events does not change the underlying cause: A very cold weather front. And in that phrase, the word “very” is  critical, in that it went beyond what planners anticipated. While we’re waiting for root cause analyses, and keeping Texas in our thoughts, we already know this is not a story of failure of renewables. It’s a story of engineering principles. Every system eventually fails; how we plan to for failures and how much we pay to prevent them are what matters. 

During a cold snap ten years ago, when coal represented a higher percentage of electricity generation,Texas experienced major outages leading to a FERC investigation. The answer then was not to build more coal and cling to the worst fuels for climate change. The answer was to weatherize the power system. This could include burying pipelines deep underground to avoid the cold, building wind turbines and gas and water pipes with heaters to stop them from freezing, and protecting sensors, valves, and other critical technologies on thermal generators.  

There is a lot of focus on building a reliable grid, meaning that power can be delivered without disruption or other noticeable issues, in case a line or two (or more) goes down. Could the Texas power system be redesigned or upgraded to reliably serve its function in a future scenario of an equally severe (or worse) storm?  Of course, it could! Would it make sense? Not necessarily. It’s a simple engineering/economic tradeoff: the lower the failure rate, the higher the systems cost. 

As the cost of absolute reliability is prohibitive, we must think in terms of resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt operations to an extreme event, like a massive cold snap across the midwest and down through Texas. Resilience is what needs to happen when reliability, well, fails. With our changing climate, this will happen more often and in more places. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, predicts that climate change will result in more frequent and more extreme weather events, which will occasionally put enormous strain on the grid. 

There are two approaches for building more resilient communities: maximizing the use of internal resources and increasing access to external resources. Texas’s internal resilience plans could include small back-up generators or batteries; community grids that can self-power to provide limited heating, water and sewage services; and improved insulation of houses that would preserve heating loads for less energy demand. Resilience can also be increased by strengthening access to external resources. Increased transmission capacity can be a resilient investment to access power in regions that are not in crisis, adding geographic diversity in addition to resource diversity.  Each of these approaches has limitations,and they work best in coordination with each other. 

Calls for grid resilience are strongest during a crisis, but attention can wane quickly, making it difficult to incorporate the costs into decision making and market solutions. Paying for resilience is a challenging analysis for utilities and policymakers because, as with reliability, a point of tension is deciding how much is enough. The federal and state government have invested in weatherization standards and incentives for homeowners, and there are requirements for individuals to carry various types of insurance against catastrophe. As we face more extreme weather around the country, it may be time to establish weatherization and resilience standards for owners and public infrastructure operators to ensure appropriate investments are taken.  

There are many complex issues impacting Texas, and it’s not reasonable to point to one causal factor. The 2011 FERC report quite clearly calls out actions that Texas did not undertake in the last ten years. Perhaps their analysis suggested it would be another 30 years before a similar storm happened, not just ten years and a worse storm. It was an expensive mistake. We need homes and power plants and a grid that are developed for future conditions, not past experiences. 

By Liza Reed and Panos Moutis. Dr. Panos Moutis is a Systems Scientist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Harry Tonemah, Public Domain