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Why the Texas power catastrophe could happen in your state, too

Posted February 19, 2021 11:52 a.m. EST

— The blackouts that shut down most of Texas for much of this week could be coming to other parts of the country in the future.

The power outages lasted for days, caused widespread misery and dozens of deaths in a state where many customers depend on electric heat.

But experts in the field, regulators in other states and the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission all said that there are similar problems with preparedness across the nation connected to extreme weather events associated with climate change.

"There will be a next time. Climate change is unfortunately already having a dramatic effect on our weather," Richard Glick, the new chairman of FERC, said at the agency's monthly meeting Thursday. "The challenges that climate change poses for the grid are only going to grow starker and more immediate."

Texas power generators were not prepared to deal with the historic cold temperatures this week that cut off supplies of natural gas and shut down some wind turbines that had not been winterized. Although utilities in the northern United States are better prepared than Texas for cold weather, they have their own vulnerabilities to heat waves and other extreme weather events that are likely to become more common, said Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

"With climate change we'll have more intense and frequent weather events," he said. "Texas has to prepare for more frequent and intense freezes and New York has to prepare for more frequent and intense heat waves."

Texas is somewhat unique in that it has its own electrical grid that is separate from the two major grids that serve the rest of the continental United States. As a result, Texas was not able to connect to neighboring states when the storm disrupted service.

But even having multiple states tied together on a wider grid cannot prevent power problems caused by extreme weather. Although the outages were most severe in Texas, with as many as 4.5 million customers losing power, some 400,000 customers in Louisiana and Oklahoma were without power as a result of the storm, even though those states are tied to the national grid.

And it's not just cold that's posing a threat. Last summer's heat wave and wild fires in California caused a series of rolling blackouts across the state. A study by authorities there concluded that the system was not prepared to meet the increased demand for electricity caused by climate change.

Industry officials say they are already spending billions to improve the system and make it more resilient.

"There is value in insuring a resilient, hardened infrastructure against all threats. Large scale outages like Texas, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, not only did they highlight the need to harden against weather impacts, but also that we are hypercritical to customers we serve," said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group representing investor-owned electric companies. "There is an expectation that if we can't prevent events from happening, we have to be able to recover as quickly as possible."

More needs to be done to prepare for extreme events across the whole country, said Daniel Cohan, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston.

"Energy systems don't do enough to prepare for extreme events," Cohan said. "We need to do a lot better than we're doing now. We can have systems a lot more resilient for single digit percentage increases in [electrical] cost."

Warnings such as these have gone unheeded in the past. That includes recommendations by FERC on the need for greater winterization of the Texas grid after a cold snap in 2011 caused less severe blackouts.

"It's obviously disappointing that we had a warning back in 2011 and people didn't take is seriously enough," Glick, the FERC chair, told reporters after Thursday's meeting.

Those recommendations were voluntary, not mandatory, partly because FERC's authority over Texas is limited. But Glick insists the agency has the power to order more changes, despite Texas' unique power isolation. FERC announced it will conduct a new investigation into this week's crisis and, based on results, issue mandatory rather than voluntary recommendations.

"We need to ensure the results of this inquiry don't just sit on the shelf gathering dust like so many other reports of this kind," Glick said. "I think we do have the authority ... even in Texas."

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