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Why did a White Out Cause a Black Out?

A deadly winter storm turned Texas white and caused blackouts for millions of Americans. Similar to the blackouts that occurred in Texas in 2011, these outages highlighted the demand for electricity is higher than what legacy power grids can currently provide. Texas’ unique power grid is independent of its neighboring states and the grid operates predominantly on energy from natural gas, coal, nuclear, and renewables from the state’s extensive wind and solar farms. Texas removed itself from the federal power grid in an effort to retain its freedom and avoid federal energy regulations, and for many years it has been a solid example of energy independence and efficiency. However, this unprecedented storm crashed Texas power plants and highlighted the need to invest in and modernize the state’s energy infrastructure. As the Energy Reliability Council of Texas tries to keep the lights on for their 26 million customers,  representing 90 percent of the state’s electricity supply, residents, researchers, and reporters are scrambling to figure out what went wrong. 

Traditionally, most power stations in Texas view the summer as the season that requires the highest power usage. Temperatures over 110˚F mean using a lot of power to keep the house at a livable temperature. Power stations thus use the winter months to conduct routine maintenance, limiting the amount of electricity output. In the winter it is not uncommon for a coal or gas plant to be completely shut down, so they can do work to ensure the plant is fully operational when the peak energy season arrives in the summer. While many of Texas’ power plants are adapted to work in extreme weather conditions, almost all of them are adapted specifically for high temperatures, instead of below freezing. The physical power stations themselves aren’t even optimized to function in these unprecedented conditions; this exposed a vulnerability that the Texas power stations may end up failing. Operating equipment outside of the optimum conditions can lead to damage or a complete breakdown of the power plant. “This event was well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even an extreme, Texas winter that you would normally plan for. And so that is really the result that we’re seeing,” said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. 

The majority of Texas’ energy is generated from natural gas, double the amount that comes from coal or any one renewable source, and natural gas power plants don’t usually keep a stockpile of fuel near their location. Unlike coal-fueled power plants, natural gas power plants rely on a supply chain for the fuel to generate electricity. “This is far beyond what the power system operators expected, a far deeper freeze and a far worse performance from our natural gas power plants than anyone anticipated,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. The large storm raging through the Midwest crippled the supply chain and meant that many natural gas power plants simply didn’t have enough fuel to generate the amount of energy needed. As millions of Texans survive and rebuild their homes after the power blackouts and freezing temperatures, this storm shines a light on the opportunity for Texas itself to invest in a robust utility and resilient energy infrastructure. 


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