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Texas Energy Crisis: Why Is the State’s Power Grid So Fragile?

CRISIS - Viability of Life on Earth by Denise Ramos Americas Jul 19th 20234 mins
Texas Energy Crisis: Why Is the State’s Power Grid So Fragile?

From its cowboy culture to country music, Texas is a state full of wonders even to the international eye. However, the state has recently been garnering global attention for all the wrong reasons. As temperatures soar to record levels, all eyes are on Texas, waiting for its power grid to face yet another disastrous malfunction. But why do these failures keep happening in Texas specifically? And how do we avoid Texas’ energy crisis from spurring out of control? 

Texas Energy Crisis: A Fragile Power Grid 

Texas’ temperatures have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels for three weeks straight, putting the state as one of the contestants for the hottest locations on Earth this summer. As the scorching heat continues to garner attention, the underlying fear of Texas’ residents begins to surface – and it has to do with the state’s fragile power grid.

In February 2021, Texas made headlines for a record-breaking winter storm that caused power outages across the state. As shown in the 2021 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Report, between February 8-20, 2021, Texas experienced a total of 4,124 outages or failures in its generating units. 75% of these malfunctions were caused by freezing temperatures and fuel issues.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) develops a Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy (SARA) for each season to measure the energy consumption and availability of the power grid. The SARA report shows that on February 14, 2021, the peak demand for the grid exceeded the energy supply by over 26,000 MW. This was over 2.5 times the predicted worst-case scenario in any SARA report.

The demand for electricity was so high that ERCOT pleaded with residents to reduce their energy consumption by issuing a public statement on that day. “We are asking Texans to take some simple, safe steps to lower their energy use during this time,” said ERCOT President Bill Magness.

About 69% of Texas residents lost electricity during the 2021 storm, and at least 210 lives were lost.

It is known that the climate crisis is affecting nations worldwide, with winter storms and heatwaves wreaking havoc in numerous regions. However, why is Texas the only state in the US that is notoriously known to crumble at extreme temperatures?

You might also like: Temperatures Surpass 45C in China and US Amid Fierce Heatwaves

Texas’ Unique Power Grid Structure and Its Downfall

Dubbed the Lone Star State, Texas is known for its long history as an independent republic.  This sense of independence extends to the construction of its power grid. Unlike other states, Texas’ power grid is not connected to the grid powering the rest of the nation.

90% of the state relies on ERCOT, a non-profit council, for electricity services. ERCOT, however, does not have its own power grid and accumulates power from different companies that produce electricity from different sources including natural gas, coal, and solar power. These electricity generators send the extracted power to transmission companies, which in turn send power to households. In other words, the power grid in Texas is decentralised, making it harder to regulate during times of crisis. 

During the 2021 winter storm, ERCOT asked companies to reduce power demand, hoping to avoid damaging its power grid. This order backfired as transmission companies cut power to natural gas companies that failed to do the required paperwork for power supply during emergencies. Unfortunately, in 2021, more than half of the overall electricity generation in Texas came from natural gas, while about 30% came from wind and solar power. ERCOT’s order eventually exposed a devastating loophole: Natural gas production relies on electricity, and electricity relies on natural gas production. 

Subsequently, the faulty measures have made Texas vulnerable not only to cold weather but also to hot conditions.

texas energy mix 2021

Texas energy mix, 2021. Image: ERCOT.

How Do We Fix This?

Although the doomed interdependence between natural gas production and electricity resulted in dozens of fatalities in 2021, the crux of the Texas electricity crisis lies in the over-reliance on natural gas instead of renewable energy. 

Texas politicians were quick to falsely blame renewable energy for the 2021 winter turmoil. They neglected to address the real problem of this energy crisis, which is instead related to the failure of state’s ageing fossil fuel power plants.

“The coal plants average about 50 years of age, gas plants average about 30. They’re mechanical, they’re prone to breakdowns … but there have been years of underinvestment,” said Ed Hirs, an expert on energy at the University of Houston. 

In recent talks about Texas’ ongoing heatwaves, solar power has been found to be productive in meeting energy demands. Texas experiences on average more sunny days than most other states, providing more opportunities for electricity generation. 

Alternatively, wind power is deemed unproductive during the day due to absent winds. However, wind turbines come into play once the sun sets, as steam from the sun’s heat hovers in evening skies. 

Not only do both wind and solar power make a full cycle of energy production, but they also do it without compromising the environment. At the end of the day, climate change is the sole perpetuating factor to extreme weather conditions. In order to tackle heatwaves and winter storms, we must stop feeding into shortcut solutions brought by fossil fuels and adopt more sustainable energy sources.

You might also like: 4 Environmental Issues in Texas in 2023

About the Author

Denise Ramos

Denise is an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, majoring in Journalism and Marketing. She joined Earth.Org in June 2023 for a Summer Editorial Internship. She is passionate about leveraging effective communication to raise awareness of different social issues. She is interested in combatting environmental issues, particularly those involving the oceans and animals.

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