A Warmer Planet Brings Cold To Texas & Creates Challenges For Grid Operators

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Texas is freezing. That’s a problem for ERCOT, the organization that manages the utility grid in much of the Lone Star state. The record low temperatures led many Texans to plug in their portable electric heaters to stay warm. That, in turn, made the demand for electricity higher than expected. And just as demand spiked, some wind turbines froze and several gas-fired generating stations tripped offline. High demand and low supply led to chaos.

Image: Zach Shahan, CleanTechnica

It didn’t take fossil fuel advocates long to start pointing fingers at renewables, blaming this week’s problem on Birkenstock-wearing treehuggers, communists, socialists, immigrants, atheists, Obama, the Green New Deal, and the horror of poor people driving Cadillacs. The truth, however, is rather different. As we reported yesterday, the majority of the missing electricity was the result of thermal generators shutting down because there is only so much natural gas to go around. When people start firing up their gas fired home heating equipment, it leaves less available for utility companies. And while frozen wind turbines were part of the problem, frozen controls at gas fired facilities were a  far bigger problem.

Why Is Mother Nature Messing With Texas?

Many factors led to the energy disruptions in Texas this week, one of them being an inbred reluctance on the part of ERCOT to interconnect the Texas grid with the grid in neighboring states. Maybe it started at the Alamo, that “we’re all alone against the world” feeling that so typifies the state. But the upshot is, when Texas needs help, none is forthcoming from its neighbors because the transmission lines that would make such a thing possible never got built.

Another factor is that no one really ever expected such a confluence of moist air and sub-zero temperatures. The Texas grid is built to power a flotilla of air conditioners in the summer. It is not built to power an army of electric space heaters in the winter. It could have been designed to do so, but backup and redundancy cost money. “Building in resilience often comes at a cost, and there’s a risk of both underpaying but also of overpaying,” Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, tells the New York Times.  “It’s a difficult balancing act.”

In simplistic terms that even a writer for CleanTechnica can understand, the jet streams, the strong upper level wind currents that circle the Earth at the mid-latitudes, usually keep cold Arctic air bottled up in the Arctic during the winter. But a warming climate is destabilizing the jet streams. Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, tells The Guardian, “The current conditions in Texas are historical, certainly generational, but this can’t be hand-waved away as if it’s entirely natural. This is happening not in spite of climate change, it’s in part due to climate change.”

Climate scientists say the polar vortex in the Arctic is like a spinning top, but when disruptions in the jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere occur, “The energy escaping from the jet stream bangs into the polar vortex so it starts to wobble and move all over the place,” Cohen says. “Where the polar vortex goes, so goes the cold air.” This past week, that colder air found its way south all the way to the border with Mexico.

“I’d say the situation this winter is consistent with research that has connected what’s happening in the Arctic with extreme weather patterns in the mid latitudes,” Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, tells The Guardian. “The polar vortex can elongate, stretch into different shapes and even split. We have seen a very big disruption this year.”

And what is causing the jet stream to become unstable? If you said global heating, go to the head of the class. Temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Arctic than they are elsewhere around the globe. Trying to model the interaction between higher temperatures, the polar vortex, and the jet stream is an extraordinarily complex process, one that would challenge the abilities of a fleet of supercomputers.

Such complexities are what lead many people to argue against simplistic solutions like spewing hydrogen sulfate particles into the stratosphere in hopes of cooling the planet. Geoengineering is a simplistic solution to an incredibly complex problem. Think of the environment as a huge billiard table with trillions of balls. The geoengineering advocates would have you believe they can calculate the precise amount of force and angle needed to strike a ball on one side of the table and predict what will happen to another ball on the opposite side. Human hubris makes it seem like a swell idea but the unknown and unknowable consequences suggest it is a foolish experiment that could easily do more harm than good.

Designing The Electrical Grids Of The Future

The answer is not building more and more thermal generating stations that spew more climate warming pollution and particulates that make people sick. It is designing smarter, more resilient grids that leverage the capabilities of renewable energy. “The crisis in Texas was not caused by the state’s renewable energy industry. The largest loss of generation came from gas-fired power plants, with the drop-off from wind farms a long way behind,” Ed Crooks, vice chairman for the Americas at Wood Mackenzie, tells Market Watch. “The loss of power has been a warning of the issues that will be raised as the proportion of renewable generation on the grid rises,” he adds.

“Building in resilience often comes at a cost, and there’s a risk of both underpaying but also of overpaying,” Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, tells the New York Times. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”

“This is going to be a significant challenge,” Emily Grubert, an infrastructure expert at Georgia Tech, tells the Times. “We need to decarbonize our power systems so that climate change doesn’t keep getting worse, but we also need to adapt to changing conditions at the same time. And the latter alone is going to be very costly. We can already see that the systems we have today aren’t handling this very well.”

So we can wallow in our misery and blame the cannibalism and pedophilia of Democrats or we can get busy building the smart grids of the future. South Australia and Green Mountain Power in Vermont are showing just how capable and cost effective virtual power plants can be. Yet we still insist on wasting money on more thermal generation. Why? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time to wake up and design the energy generating and distribution networks we will need tomorrow. Today would be as good a day as any to start down that path.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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