Texas still has seen its share of extreme weather events, but over the past two decades they have intensified. A few years ago, after the fifth ” 500 year floodIn five years, I remarked to a friend, “We’re going to have to stop calling them that. “
Last week, Texas was hit by another kind of extreme weather event: record cold temperatures and heavy snow. This, in turn, led to massive blackouts statewide. Lives were lost as people struggled to stay warm in places like Houston. Barely 10 years ago, freezing temperatures had a similar, albeit less severe, effect on the condition.
Of course, this rise in extreme weather conditions is not limited to Texas. Many places across the country – and even around the world – have experienced multiple “historic” weather events in recent years. California droughts last year led to six of the biggest forest fires in the history of the state. In 2017 and 2018, British Columbia experienced two consecutive seasons of record wildfires. In August 2020, a derecho – a line of intense winds and thunderstorms – swept across the Midwest, flattening crops, disrupting utilities and telecommunications, and causing property damage estimated at $ 11 billion.
All of these extreme events have had an impact on utility operations. In some cases, such as the recent cold snap in Texas, the impact has been severe. And yet, we continue to label these storms “historic” and “unprecedented”, choosing not to spend money to prepare our infrastructure to withstand extraordinary conditions, even as the norm continues to change. . The result is increased suffering afterwards and even greater expense to repair preventable damage. But the current crisis in Texas should make it clear: that calculation must change.
The difficulties in Texas are mainly caused by two factors. The first is that over the years, Texas has increasingly isolated its network from neighboring states. This means that it cannot import power as easily as others. Under normal circumstances, this is not a huge problem – Texas has a great diversity of power generation, both by type and geography. But when a massive weather event hits a large part of the state, there are few backup options.
The second is that utilities, refineries and factories were simply not prepared for this extreme weather event. Besides, the houses too. The pipes burst. The water pipes froze. Moisture inside the equipment prevented the instruments from functioning. Even the South Texas Project Power Plant, a nuclear power plant on the Gulf Coast of Texas, had to shut down. The company that operates the plant reported that the deep freeze caused a feedwater pump to trip, resulting in one of the plant’s nuclear reactors being taken offline, as designed. to do so when it detects a potential danger.
But other states manage much colder weather each year without these types of power outages. Why did the deep cold cripple South Texas?
I worked as a chemical engineer in refineries in Montana and Texas. I have worked in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland and on the Big Island of Hawaii. From an operational standpoint, the power plants in each of these locations are very different. Each location experiences weather events which require specific design considerations, many of which may be unnecessary in other locations.
For example, in Montana, one would reasonably expect temperatures to reach 40 below zero. As a result, more money is spent to ensure that critical infrastructure is well insulated or located inside buildings. Texas, on the other hand, does not take these precautions. While buildings can withstand hurricane winds, they are not insulated to withstand harsh winters. In the past, it was reasonable to expect Houston not to experience snow and temperatures to drop to single digits. Yes he could do occur, but companies generally do not protect themselves against events that are perceived to be extremely rare. The costs are considered greater than the risk.
But the consequences of this storm will probably cost several billion dollars to repair. In addition to the damage, businesses and homeowners were left with astronomical bills. As the natural gas infrastructure froze, it was not able to fully meet the simultaneous demands for heat and electricity. The price hike was supposed to provide a market-based solution for crises like this, but it clearly failed to reduce demand enough to meet the dwindling supply.