New York – Even mighty Texas, America’s energy powerhouse, is feeling the wrath of Mother Nature.
A deep frost this week in Texas, which relies on electricity to heat many homes, is causing energy demand to skyrocket. At the same time, natural gas, coal, wind and nuclear facilities in Texas have been shut down due to unthinkable low temperatures.
This situation could have far-reaching implications as the US energy industry tries to reduce carbon emissions in response to the climate crisis.
That nightmarish supply and demand situation has seen electricity prices in energy-rich Texas skyrocket more than 10,000% compared to before the record-setting temperatures hit. Texas has been hit by life-threatening blackouts. More than 4 million people in the state were without power early Tuesday.
In response, Governor Greg Abbott has called for an investigation into the Texas Electrical Reliability Council, a nonprofit organization known as Ercot, which controls most of the state’s grid. The group’s chief executive on Tuesday defended the controlled outages, saying they “prevented the network from collapsing” and sent the state into a total blackout.
“It is not designed to handle these unusual conditions”
Although some try to blame it on one fuel source or another, the reality is that Arctic temperatures are affecting both fossil fuels and renewables.
“Extreme cold is causing the entire system to freeze,” said Jason Bordoff, a former energy official in the Obama administration and director of the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “All power sources perform poorly in extreme cold because they are not designed to handle these unusual conditions.”
The domino effect is being felt across the country as Texas’ prolific oil and gas industry falters.
Motiva’s expanding Port Arthur oil refinery, the largest in the United States, closed Monday, citing “record freezing temperatures.” About 2.5 million barrels a day of refining capacity was closed between Houston and Louisiana, according to Rystad Energy.
Countless drillers went offline as temperatures in the Permian Basin, the capital of the fracking of the country, fell below zero. The supply shortage helped push oil prices in the United States to exceed $ 60 a barrel for the first time since January 2020.
Prices at gas stations are also increasing. The national average could easily climb 15 cents a gallon over the next week or two, according to Patrick De Haan, head of Oil Analysis at GasBuddy.
Texas is the leading US wind, oil and natural gas producer.
It is surprising that these power outages are occurring in a state with abundant energy resources. Texas produces more electricity than any other state in the United States, generating nearly twice as much as Florida, the next closest, according to federal statistics.
Texas is America’s number one state for both crude oil and natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.The state accounted for a staggering 41% of America’s oil production in 2019 and a quarter part of its commercialized natural gas production.
Wind power is also booming in Texas, which produced about 28% of all US wind electricity in 2019, the EIA said.
But the problem is that Texas is not only an energy superpower, it tends to be an above-average temperature state. That means your infrastructure is ill-prepared for the cold snap that is currently wreaking havoc. And the consequences are being felt by millions.
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It’s not just wind power
Critics of renewable energy have pointed out that wind turbines have frozen or need to shut down due to extreme weather.
And that’s significant because nearly a quarter (23%) of the energy in Texas last year was generated by wind power, according to the Ercot.
Although other places with colder climates (such as Iowa and Denmark) rely on the wind for an even higher share of power, experts said turbines in Texas were not conditioned for the unexpected frost. Cold weather protection, such as antifreeze and heating elements inside turbine blades and components, are not commonly used in Texas.
“That adds cost, so it’s cheaper not to have those extra features,” said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University who studies Energy Policy and Systems.
But this is not just about wind turbines shutting down. Natural gas and coal power plants need water to stay online. However, those water facilities froze in the low temperatures and others lost access to the electricity they needed to function.
“The capacity of some companies that generate the energy has been frozen. This includes natural gas and coal generators, ”Governor Abbott wrote on Twitter.
And that’s even more important to Texas than frozen wind turbines because combined-cycle natural gas (40%) and coal (18%) generated more than half of the state’s power in 2020, according to Ercot.
Rising energy prices in Texas
Nuclear power also relies on water to operate and at least one unit in South Texas was shut down, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Texas gets about 11% of its energy from nuclear power.
“Even if Texas didn’t have wind power, energy prices would keep climbing to the moon,” said Matthew Hoza, manager of Energy Analysis at BTU Analytics.
The problem, according to Hoza, is that many companies in Texas did not invest in cold protection for power plants and natural gas facilities.
“When you’re in West Texas, are you really going to spend money on that team?” Hoza said.
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Texas isolated from the national grid
It’s too early to say definitively what went wrong in Texas and how to avoid similar cuts. State authorities will need to provide more information.
However, some experts say the criticism of wind power already seems overblown.
“In terms of the blame game, the focus on the wind is a red herring. It’s more of a political problem than what’s causing the grid power problems, ”said Dan Cohan, associate professor of Environmental Engineering at Rice University.
Cohan said there was a much larger deficit in terms of the amount of energy Texas expected from natural gas than from wind.
It’s clear that a wide range of energy sources, from fossil fuels to renewables, were unprepared for the unusual weather in Texas.
“Regions need to rethink the extreme conditions they are planning for and make sure their systems are designed to withstand them,” said Jenkins of Princeton.
The energy crisis in Texas also raises questions about the nature of the state’s deregulated and decentralized power grid. Unlike other states, Texas has made a conscious decision to isolate its network from the rest of the country.
That means that when things are going well, Texas cannot export excess energy to neighboring states. And in the current crisis, it cannot import energy either.
“When it comes to electricity, what happens in Texas stays in Texas,” Cohan said. “That really worried us again.”