My parents got power back for a few hours following 24-hours of darkness only to lose it again a few hours later. On Feb. 16, 2021, I checked with their energy provider, and it listed only 43% of residents had electricity working to their homes. My dad, 81, sacrificed the spare lumber saved for numerous home-improvement projects to feed the fireplace and keep my childhood home liveable.
The extremely cold weather that hit the South in February shows one of the biggest problems with the current push to electrify transportation – our grid isn’t up to the challenge yet.
There are three electrical grids in the U.S., one for the East, one for the West, and the ironically named Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) serving only that state. Texas established ERCOT, in part, to avoid regulations from the larger grids requiring stringent readiness standards for extreme weather. However, this isn’t a Texas-only problem. The great blackout of 2003 showed that untrimmed trees in Cleveland could plunge tens of millions of people on the East Coast into darkness.
The Texas outages came from a combination of foreseeable and unforeseeable problems. The bulk of the state’s power is generated from natural gas, but many plants don’t operate year round. Power demand in the Lone Star State peaks in the hot summer months, and demand is typically very low in the winter. So, older, inefficient plants shut down or perform maintenance until they’re needed again. Even though forecasters knew severe weather was coming, Texas couldn’t get enough plants recommissioned in time for an extreme leap in power demand. Frozen natural gas wells further constrained energy availability, forcing several power plants and refineries to shut down for lack of fuel.
Texas is the nation’s leading producer of wind power, getting nearly 16% of its electricity from turbines, according to ERCOT. However, those units weren’t designed for extreme cold. Many wind farms had shut down for the winter, others had frozen gears, and even those that produced power couldn’t store it easily because batteries lose much of their capacity in frigid weather.
Consider this a wakeup call.
Many Texans used their gasoline- and diesel-powered cars to generate electricity and heat during the cold snap, something that will be impossible if General Motors (GM) and Tesla achieve their goals of emissions-free transportation.
In addition to improving battery systems and lowering the cost of electric vehicles (EVs), February’s Texas power disaster has shown that we’re going to need a lot more generation capacity to make EVs viable in large volumes.
President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion energy plan calls for significant improvements to the grid but also calls for increased use of solar and wind power, systems that proved highly fallible in Texas.
I’m convinced that we can make this work. We can have EVs and clean energy to power them, but Texas is showing us the size of the challenge ahead of us.