Texas and California Blackouts Show We Need Dramatic Infrastructure Upgrades

Over a period of about six months, the United States suffered two extreme weather events that had the same outcome: widespread energy disruptions through rolling power outages that left people dangerously vulnerable to the elements.

Last August, a powerful heat wave knocked out electricity for millions of Californians in what was the first statewide set of power outages in some 20 years. This past February, a brutal and deadly cold snap in Texas caused rolling blackouts, leaving millions of Texans without the usual means to stay warm.

Efforts among allies of the fossil fuel industry to paint these blackouts as primarily a result of unreliable renewable energy sources have since been disproved. With climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events across the U.S., and as broad efforts to green the nation’s energy grid move forward, we must take a deep look at the tragic events that unfolded in Texas and California and learn from the mistakes that were made.

To discuss, we spoke with Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding partner of IdeaSmiths, an energy systems analytical firm.

Daniel Ross: What do you see as the most important lessons to be gleaned from the rolling blackouts that Texas experienced earlier this year?

Joshua Rhodes: One has to look at all of the systems. We rely heavily on our thermal fleet [predominantly powered through natural gas] to be available to meet that winter demand. I think it worked out that, at peak demand, we lost half of our thermal fleet when we relied on 90 percent of it to be there. Part of that comes from: We didn’t winterize the power plants; we had cooling water issues; we had cooling water sensor issues in the case of a nuclear facility. I think one of the big kickers is that the electricity sector was relying on the gas sector to be firm, and that turned out to be a bad assumption.

In particular with Texas, the natural gas we produce is a wet gas — there are lots of other liquids in water that come up with it, and that froze. We lost half of our natural gas production. And when half your gas plants rely on natural gas to make electricity, and you lose half of your fuel, you’re going to start off these events with one hand tied behind your back.

Renewables do get a knock for the fact you can’t turn them on any more than the sun’s shining and the wind’s blowing. But I think we learned lessons about fuel security. We need to take a broader look not only at the power plants that provide us with electricity but what fuels those power plants.

An official analysis blamed the rolling blackouts that we saw last year in California on three main things: extreme heat, antiquated grid reliability planning and an energy market that didn’t work as efficiently as it needed to. Do you see any similarities between what Texas and California experienced?

We [in Texas] don’t have the wind issues that California does with wildfires and things like that — or to that extent, anyway. But what they do share in common is if you take a system that was designed under a certain set of parameters — under a certain set of conditions — and you push it beyond the bounds it was designed for, then you’re going to have problems.

California has the target of reaching 100 percent clean energy production by 2045. Given the likelihood of extreme heat events along the West Coast becoming a more common occurrence, what does that state need to be mindful of in terms of energy resilience?

We really need to study the weather conditions that get us to these extreme events, which homes and businesses and people experience, because at the end of the day, it’s [about] buildings demanding electricity.

We need to figure out during those conditions what is happening. What is the sun doing? What is the wind doing? What are our neighbors doing? That’s especially the case for a place like California that relies a lot on [energy] imports, unlike Texas. If you become too comfortable thinking, “If we get into a bind, our neighbors will be able to help us,” but if everyone’s in a bind at the same time because you have a massive high-pressure system across the entire Western part of the United States, then that’s going to be an issue.

Broadly speaking, how have we planned in the past for extreme weather events?

That’s a great question. Historically, we’ve tended to look backwards in order to predict the future. We look at weather we’ve experienced in the past, and we use that as a marker with which to build our infrastructure to meet our future demands.

The problem is that under a changing climate, looking backwards is not a good way of looking forward. We’re going to have to come up with better ways of figuring out what future demands will be, given that a changing climate will impact those weather patterns that [historically] have given us our demands.

That’s hard. Looking backwards, you can actually look at data and you can actually see what happened. It’s something you can hold in your hand. It’s harder looking into the future because we haven’t seen that yet, so, in all likelihood, we’re probably going to get it wrong. But it would be better to err on that side of more extreme weather so that we’re ready for it, than get caught short without the infrastructure we need.

So, within our broader nationwide push toward greater clean energy reliance, what specifically do we need to be mindful of moving forward?

I think we need to keep the toolbox as big as possible.

There are folks out there who, when they think “clean energy future,” they think “renewable energy future” only. I think we can get really far with renewables — I’ve seen some studies showing 60, 70, 80 percent, depending where you are in the U.S., and depending on what your [energy] mix is like, and particularly whether or not you have something like hydro[electricity], which can be a good baseload. [Norway] can rely on very high [levels of] renewables because they’re [more than] 90 percent hydro. You can turn it off and on. It’s basically an emissions-free fossil fuel plant.

Getting that last 20 percent energy, I think that’s when it can become more expensive. It’s what most of the models show. And I think it’ll be harder for people to swallow going forward, and so, I think [we’ll need to be] keeping the toolbox open … paired with energy storage.

We’re pretty good now on short duration energy storage — the things that can modulate back and forth throughout the day. We don’t have good seasonal energy storage technology yet. And so, we need to be working on that. The more renewables we want to move from, say, a shoulder season to a summer or winter season, we need to focus on some of those kinds of [long-term] storage technologies.

How do you see Biden’s infrastructure plan — given available details — as a vehicle for needed change?

Nominally, there’s about $100 billion in the plan for grid upgrades. I think it’s a good start, but I think there’s some targeted investments that could be made, and I hope there’ll be a multiplier effect on that money that would allow more [of the] private sector to come into the system.

If you add up how much concrete and steel, how many wires and power plants and everything we have on the system — if we had to replace everything we have right now, it would cost about $5 trillion. There’s about $2 trillion worth of upgrades that need to be made on the system, and that’s just to keep things the way they are. If we want to transition to a different future than what we currently have, I imagine that’s going to cost trillions more dollars.

And so, we’ve got a long way to go in terms of building the energy infrastructure we frankly really need. If you look at the American Association of Civil Engineers, they grade our energy infrastructure as a C-, which, as a college professor, that’s barely a passing grade.

Most big studies that look over the entire U.S. show us how to get to high levels of clean energy, or high levels of renewable energy, and they build a lot of transmission [lines]. Sometimes, these weather events are large and they can take up an entire section of a country. And so, if we’re going to be able to import power to one part of the country from another part of the country that is not experiencing those conditions, that requires having really long extension cords.

Sometimes it’s not money that’s the problem — it’s getting all the people in the room to agree. One of the issues we have right now is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC; they have the ability to force everybody to get into the room to decide long-distance oil and gas pipelines, but they do not have the ability to do the same for electricity, for long-distance transmission lines. So, there’s a disconnect. There’s no one who can force everyone into the same room to even talk about the issue. It becomes a big logistics, red tape problem in order to build the infrastructure we need.

Honestly, if I could trade in the $100 billion, I would probably trade it in for the ability for FERC to help site those lines.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.