NEWS Why America’s power grids will keep failing us (Salon)




Nicole Karlis, Salon.

Link to the orig­i­nal arti­cle in Salon, click here.

Wednes­day marked the third day that many Tex­ans found them­selves with­out power fol­low­ing a rare win­ter storm and frigid tem­per­a­tures dip­ping into the low 20s. While power is being restored in some areas, rotat­ing out­ages are expected to start on Wednes­day in Texas.

The sit­u­a­tion is dire for many Tex­ans. Accord­ing to The New York Times, at least 23 peo­ple have died as of Wednes­day morn­ing. Emer­gency rooms saw a wave of peo­ple with car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing, the after­math of attempts to keep warm. Like­wise, clean water access is a grow­ing issue as pipes freeze in the Lone Star State.

And Texas isn’t alone: As the rem­nants of the win­ter storm make its way across the Mid­west, and a sec­ond win­ter storm looms in the North­east, rolling power out­ages are pop­ping up in parts of Mis­souri, Louisiana, Ohio, West Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky, and Ore­gon. The sit­u­a­tion is eerily sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in Cal­i­for­nia last sum­mer, when rolling black­outs were sparked by a demand-​​driven energy short­age; then, a mas­sive heat wave increased air con­di­tioner use and forced rolling power out­ages. Those black­outs were the first of their kind since 2001 when Cal­i­for­nia faced an elec­tric­ity crisis.

All these recent inci­dents are rais­ing con­cerns over the fragility of the country’s frag­mented power grid, and how vul­ner­a­ble these sys­tems are to extreme weather events com­pounded by cli­mate change.

So what went wrong in Texas?

Many of the prob­lems we’re see­ing, both in Cal­i­for­nia now in Texas, are due to the fact that the grid we have in both places is dumb and old, as opposed to being smart, new and flex­i­ble,” said Daniel Kam­men, a pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Fos­sil fuel grids” like the one in Texas, and like what Cal­i­for­nia used to have until they tran­si­tioned away from them, are “really dumb sys­tems — they’re not adap­tive or flex­i­ble, and that is really caus­ing a lot of the prob­lems you’re see­ing in Texas today,” Kam­men added.

Indeed, fos­sil fuel power plants are gen­er­ally built to be far away from pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, which means that the power has to be shipped long dis­tances. This alone, Kam­men said, cre­ates a very “inflex­i­ble” sys­tem. In Texas, the power short­age hap­pened after nat­ural gas plants couldn’t sup­ply the 30 gigawatts of power they were expected to sup­ply. To put this in per­spec­tive, 30 gigawatts is more than the aver­age demand in Cal­i­for­nia, Kam­men said.

The idea that so much gas would go offline, because of these freez­ing events, really speaks to a sys­tem that’s not adapt­able,” Kam­men said. “It”s not able to reroute power because we have smart inter­changes on the trans­mis­sion net­work; it’s a sys­tem that is fun­da­men­tally not up to speed … they don’t have enough sen­sors on the power lines, on the power plants, so they can pre­dict this.”

We know that when these events hap­pen, the power losses are ear­li­est and gen­er­ally longest in the low­est income com­mu­ni­ties,” Kam­men said. “So there’s a real envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice dam­age that comes from not hav­ing a smarter,  more renew­able energy–enabled grid.”

Kam­men added that Cal­i­for­nia, New Jer­sey and New York — which have become lead­ers in imple­ment­ing solar pan­els — are exam­ples of how states can imple­ment a renew­able energy plan.

In an ice and snow storm like this, what you would have needed to have peo­ple do is lit­er­ally go and shovel the snow off the roof,” Kam­men said. “I’m hop­ing that this will push Texas to rec­og­nize the large eco­nomic ben­e­fit of mov­ing to enabling dis­trib­uted rooftop solar, and more wind farms dis­trib­uted across the state can be a real ben­e­fit here.” Mod­ern wind tur­bines, Kam­men noted, have built-​​in heat­ing systems.

But the prob­lems with the grid in Texas were also the result of a per­fect storm of poor plan­ning, decrepit infra­struc­ture, and blind wor­ship of the free mar­ket by policymakers.

Vijay Modi, a pro­fes­sor of mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, told Salon what he believes is hap­pen­ing in Texas is the agglom­er­a­tion of five sep­a­rate shifts that have hap­pened in Amer­ica over the last few decades. First, we’ve built more hous­ing. Sec­ond, our civ­i­liza­tion has become more reliant on gas. Third, elec­tric heat pumps have become more pop­u­lar, espe­cially in the South. Fourth, there’s been a momen­tum in some parts of the coun­try to embrace a free mar­ket power util­ity sys­tem — espe­cially in Texas. And finally, many of our gas pipelines and power sys­tems — like the one in Texas — aren’t weath­er­ized. Indeed, power grids across the coun­try weren’t built with cli­mate change in mind.

All these fac­tors com­bined with a weather event unusual for Texas added up to an inad­e­quate sup­ply for this rare event,” Modi said. “Unfor­tu­nately, we are likely to see more rare events in the future because we have so much more hous­ing and peo­ple to sup­port with an aging infra­struc­ture and unusual weather systems.”

Modi added that now is the time to “rethink how we engi­neer our sys­tems for resiliency and for reliability.”

Both experts had dif­fer­ent opin­ions on whether this sit­u­a­tion — more fre­quent power out­ages, rolling black­outs to ease the demand on power grids dur­ing extreme weather — would con­sti­tute the new normal.

The short answer is that the new nor­mal is not just because of cli­mate and weather, but it’s because of our expec­ta­tions too,” Modi. “I work in coun­tries where many don’t have elec­tric­ity access at all, for them, the new nor­mal is to get at least enough for light­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Our new nor­mal will go towards, ‘I want to be able to run my elec­tric heat, charge my elec­tric vehi­cle, run my appli­ances and my WiFi all at the same time maybe and do so reliably.’”

Modi said that Amer­ica “can and should deploy smarter engi­neer­ing solu­tions that don’t require a new $20,000 per cus­tomer infra­struc­ture invest­ment to get this reliability.”

Mean­while, Kam­men deemed the sit­u­a­tion in Texas “the new abnormal.”

It’s the new abnor­mal, if any­thing — because only after the fact can ana­lysts fig­ure [whether] the Texas storm was dri­ven by the abnor­mal cli­mate change we’re seeing.”


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