Dangerous winter weather and frigid temperatures have left millions of Texans in the dark and many are left asking how these electrical failures could have occurred. Some have pointed to Texas’ wind turbines and renewables, while others claim fossil fuels or natural gas are the sources of concern. And still, others take issue with the state’s independently operated power grid. However, the massive winter storms battering the region highlight a more complicated and nuanced reality: regardless of the origin, infrastructure investment in a diversified power grid may be one solution that addresses many possible problems.
Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, (ERCOT) told Bloomberg Business, “frozen instruments at natural gas, coal, and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas,” are the main factors behind the emergency – renewables were just a small piece of the puzzle. To understand the root of the problem, we need to look beyond Woodfin’s assessment and at a crucial fact that puts this winter storm blackout into context: Texas has an electric grid that is independent of other states.
There are currently three power grids in the U.S. – an eastern grid, a western grid, and a Texas grid, which encompasses almost the entire state. While other states receive electricity from a diverse array of utilities, 26 million Texans (representing 90 percent of the state’s electric supply) rely on ERCOT, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit, to supply them with electricity. ERCOT, which has faced criticism for its authority, is regulated by Texas’ Public Utility Commission and the Texas Legislature.
“As the independent system operator for the region, ERCOT schedules power on an electric grid that connects more than 46,500 miles of transmission lines and 680+ generation units,” ERCOT recently explained. “It also performs financial settlement for the competitive wholesale bulk-power market and administers retail switching for nearly eight million premises in competitive choice areas.”
Why does a single entity have control over 90 percent of Texas’ power supply? It’s rooted in the “same theme that colors so much of Texas’ history and public policy: a distrust of federal interference,” wrote journalist Kate Galbraith in a 2011 Texas Tribune piece.
As Galbraith points out, ERCOT was formed in 1970, taking on “additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago.” Notably, the grid “remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission,” added Galbraith.
Texas has notoriously chosen not to connect its grid with neighboring states, and as Bloomberg notes the state “lacks the long-term planning processes that other parts of the country employ.” The insufficient preparations for the winter storm has likely compounded the crisis as the grid is primed to sustain the Texas heat, but not a barrage of chilling temperatures.
“Grid demand is so much higher than we’ve really built the system for in the wintertime,” said the University of Texas at Austin Research Associate Joshua Rhodes.
With nearly 4 million homes and businesses without power on Tuesday, Texas finds itself at a crossroads: continue to operate a largely decentralized power system or move toward a more connected, adaptable platform. The latter could open up new resources to help regions of the state prepare for the next outage crisis.
ERCOT CEO Bill Magness described Texas as “an electrical island in the United States,” to the Austin American-Statesman and “that independence has been jealously guarded, I think both by policymakers and the industry.”
It means having to move away from a reliance on fossil fuel backup generation and, instead, increase access to reserved generation from wind and solar. As NBC News reports, “Electric grid regulators said the U.S. will have to develop vast supplies of power storage — such as gigantic batteries — that rely on emerging technologies that have only recently started becoming economical and feasible on a large scale.” This is especially important as wind and solar power can typically only be generated weather permitting.
Texas – which ranks first in wind power – and other states across the country have already made major strides toward an all-renewable future. But, one of the major obstacles will be developing technologies to conserve power from these sources on a large-scale. This kind of adaptability will allow Texas and other states to be better prepared during other extreme weather conditions. American innovators have helped us overcome some of our greatest challenges, and this ingenuity will be crucial moving forward.