Lessons from the Texas Blackout

Monday 1 March 2021

The recent power outage in Texas was devastating, with over 4.5 million customers losing power amidst a historic cold snap. The freezing temperatures incapacitated about 40% of the state’s power generation and much of the state was left in the cold and dark. 

This crisis has sparked a debate about power generation and Texas Republicans have been quick to blame the ‘Green New Deal’ and the increasing reliance on renewable energy generation. However, this misses the real underlying cause. A cause that was a long time coming and that policy makers had been warned about well in advance. 

In February 2011, almost ten years ago to the day, Texas had a similar cold snap and suffered through rolling blackouts as power generation was crippled. After that, experts suggested that power generation needed to be ‘winterised’ (a process by which generation is made more resilient to cold weather) and reserve generating capacity should be built (to make up the difference when some generators went offline). However, these changes would have imposed more regulation and higher costs on generators, and resulted in marginally higher electricity bills for customers. So these actions weren’t taken. 

If they had been taken, the worst of the 2021 crisis could’ve been avoided. About half of Texas’ wind turbines froze and shut down, despite winterised turbines in other states and even in Siberia working fine in similar conditions. Similarly, natural gas plants failed because pipes weren’t properly insulated. 

A final step that could’ve reduced the severity of the crisis was the lack of interconnectors. Interconnectors connect electricity generation between different areas, for example in Australia Victoria and Tasmania are connected by Basslink and NSW and Queensland are connected by the Terranora interconnector. Texas has refused multiple efforts to connect to multi-state power pools because state leaders have wanted to avoid federal regulation. This meant, when Texas generation went down, they couldn’t draw on power being generated from out of state. 

The reliability of electricity grids are a critical focus for regulators the world over. As we transition to a world of renewable generation the way we generate, store and transport electricity may need to be updated. However, the lesson from this Texas crisis is not that renewables or fossil fuels are the problem. Rather, the lesson is the somewhat boring, tedious work of policy design and regulatory oversight is critical to ensuring grid stability. And, we hope, that politicians will be much more willing to listen to experts. 

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