The Daily: Climate Change and the Texas Blackouts

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The Daily: Climate Change and the Texas Blackouts
archived recording

We are following breaking news. Millions of people in Texas are without power right now as the state looks to conserve energy and relieve stress on the electric grid.

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today: Huge winter storms have plunged large parts of the central and southern United States, including much of Texas, into a deadly energy crisis.

archived recording

Initially, we thought these outages would last maybe a few minutes. That’s what we were told, but many people have lost power for hours, a day, longer.

michael barbaro

With rolling blackouts leaving much of the state powerless amid dangerously cold temperatures —

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Medical examiners in Galveston requesting a refrigerated truck after reports of several cold weather related deaths.

michael barbaro

— my colleagues, Clifford Krauss and Brad Plumer, on why what happened in Texas may be a glimpse into America’s future.

It’s Wednesday, February 17.

Hello, Cliff?

clifford krauss

Mike, Hello.

michael barbaro

Hi, Cliff. Hey, it’s Michael Barbaro. Cliff, can you hear me?

clifford krauss

Yeah, hey, Michael. How are you?

michael barbaro

Good.

clifford krauss

I’m just trying to —

michael barbaro

Your service is a little spotty, which under the circumstances, makes total sense. I’m just going to try to see if I can get a kind of clean —

clifford krauss

Well, [INAUDIBLE] in a different place.

michael barbaro

Yeah, you’re starting to sound a little — you’re starting to sound a little bit better just as you moved.

clifford krauss

Good, good because I was in my car and now I’m in my house, and now I’m going to go to the second floor. My car is warmer than my house.

But the cell coverage is better in the house.

michael barbaro

OK.

clifford krauss

How does that sound?

michael barbaro

It sounds really good. Wait, so you so you were just out inside your car?

clifford krauss

Yes, because I was charging my phone. I can’t do that in the house.

michael barbaro

Right. Because you don’t have electricity.

clifford krauss

Correct. That’s right.

michael barbaro

So I just want to understand, like, how are you doing? What is working in your life? How many layers of clothing are you wearing? Are you OK?

clifford krauss

OK, going backwards, how many layers — well, I have an Arctic ski jacket, so I’m wearing that and very warm sweat pants over another pair of sweat pants. So that’s what I’m wearing, and I got my hood on from my parka which I got for a trip up to the Canadian Arctic years ago. And I’ve been under blankets as well. So it’s very, very cold in the house. Nothing is working. I mean, we had a leak last night. I’m not sure why, but since there’s no water anymore, there’s no leak anymore. So that’s the good news. We had some problems with our heating system downstairs. But now there’s no heat at all, so that’s fine. And you know, there’s no electricity. The worst part of this right now is no coffee, you know? So we’ll hunker down. I’ll have some mild withdrawals from not having coffee, and hopefully, we’ll get some heat by tonight. We haven’t had heat since about 4 o’clock this morning. We expected it because a lot of people didn’t have power for a whole day yesterday.

michael barbaro

So Cliff, how cold is it in your house, and how cold is it outside, and is there much of a difference at this point?

clifford krauss

I’d be guessing, but probably, it’s about 20 to 25 degrees in my house right now and getting colder.

michael barbaro

Wow.

clifford krauss

These are the coldest temperatures I understand in 35 years or so.

michael barbaro

So Cliff, we want to understand what has just happened in Texas. Very clearly, there has been a pretty epic failure of the state’s electric power system. And as it happens, you’re not just a man in Houston without power sitting in a freezing cold house. You are a Times energy reporter, who very well understands how energy flows through an electric grid. So what do we need to understand about how Texans get electricity?

clifford krauss

OK, so Texans get their electricity through many sources. We have coal and nuclear and solar, and quite a bit of wind and also natural gas.

michael barbaro

OK.

clifford krauss

Which is the number one provider. But also, the most unique thing about the Texas grid is its independence from the rest of the country.

michael barbaro

So Cliff, why is Texas energy independent? Because my sense is that most states want to be connected to a larger national electric grid because it creates — I believe the industry term is redundancy. Like something goes wrong, you can call upon another state, and you can ask them for electricity from their state, and it means you have kind of backup systems.

clifford krauss

Well, most states don’t have both the demand, the people and the supply. Very few do. And so if you’re in North Dakota, and you’ve got a lot of wind and you’re producing a lot of wind energy, but you don’t have a big population, you’re going to send that energy through transmission lines to other states. If you are New York, and you want hydro from Canada, you’re going to bring it down. Texas doesn’t need to do that. Texas has got the supply and the demand within its own borders.

michael barbaro

So in other words, Texas creates so much power that its view is, we don’t really need to take power from anybody else. We can be self-sufficient, so we will be self-sufficient, and we’ll kind of cut ourselves off from the rest of the grid.

clifford krauss

Yes, that is true. Now, there are exceptions. The exceptions are usually in the summer when the temperatures rise very, very high, and demand for use of air conditioners is very high.

michael barbaro

But of course, that is not what happened today. This was not a story of high air conditioning usage taxing the Texas electric system. So what exactly did happen in the last 24 hours with this storm and this very unique diversified electric system that’s independent in Texas that has led us to this point?

clifford krauss

So in the last 24 to 36 hours, there’s been an extreme situation that Texans haven’t seen in about 35 years. And that is intense cold, sleet, and ice and snow across the entire state, every county from West Texas in the Permian Basin, which is the center of the oil business, which is on the edge of the Chihuahua desert, as well as in the northern prairies around Dallas and Fort Worth and down to San Antonio. All of these areas had temperatures in the low single digits unprecedented, forcing millions of Texans to simultaneously crank up their heat. And this kind of surge in demand during the winter across the state was never anticipated by the people who constructed the grid. And so what the Texas grid operators did was institute rolling blackouts, in which alternate communities or neighborhoods lost power to conserve as much energy as possible.

michael barbaro

And how long do these rolling blackouts last?

clifford krauss

At first, the regulators said that the interruptions would last like 45 minutes. But by the end of Monday, it became clear that there were interruptions of 12 hours or more — for some people, an entire day or even more than that.

michael barbaro

Wow. So at this point, you have super high consumer demand, rolling blackouts, and on top of that, unusually cold temperatures, snow and freezing rain. So where does that leave the grid?

clifford krauss

It seems like everything has gone wrong. There’s been a freezing up of at least some of the wind turbines. There’s been a freezing up of gas lines. There have been problems with the transmission even from the nuclear as well as coal plants. So across the entire supply chain, there are problems. And so it appears to be a system that is not prepared to deal with prolonged periods of cold.

michael barbaro

Got it. So this is not a problem where one kind of energy source faltered or failed and others succeeded. It feels like this is a crisis in which almost all sources of energy failed.

clifford krauss

Yes. Basically, the infrastructure of the state is not prepared for these extreme conditions. And maybe if the extreme conditions were in one part of the state or another, there would be sufficient backup. But the fact that these conditions blanket the entire state, and the state has one system, makes it feel like this is the perfect storm in more ways than one.

michael barbaro

Well, so let me ask you this, Cliff. Is this the story of a very bad winter storm that upended a reasonably good system? Or is this the story of what turns out to have been a pretty weak system that was upended by the kind of storm that we may end up seeing a lot more of in the future because of climate change?

clifford krauss

Well, it appears to be both. The storm is unusual, to say the least, but it also underscores the fragility of the grid under extreme circumstances. But there’s another factor here, and that may potentially give answers when this is fully investigated. The Texas system years ago was deregulated.

michael barbaro

Meaning government got less and less involved in overseeing the electric system and handed it over to the private sector.

clifford krauss

It handed it over to the private sector, and it opened the system to more competition. People have an abundance of choices and price ranges and even packages for the electricity that they choose to purchase for their residences and business. People like this. They get there because of the deregulation and because of competition. More competition between utilities, people get their energy very cheap. People like that until there’s an emergency, and then you see you get what you pay for.

michael barbaro

Got it. Whenever you hear people in government talk about what they want from an electric grid, they often say diversity, renewable, not one source but multiple sources of energy.

clifford krauss

Yeah.

michael barbaro

So recognizing that what’s happening in Texas is multifactorial and pretty complicated, it feels like on the surface, Texas has a pretty advanced, perhaps even progressive energy system, where there are multiple sources, including many renewables. But it turns out that that didn’t really solve any of the problems in the last day or two.

clifford krauss

I agree with that analysis. The problem is that no one source could compensate for the other sources when there were multiple problems with the transmission of the power from those sources to the consumers, and there were problems with the transmission across the system.

michael barbaro

And Cliff, from your early understanding of the problem, is one of these factors bigger than the others? Is it deregulation? Is it this independent system that’s so unique? Is it not enough diversity?

clifford krauss

I think it’s early to say. There will be people who are critics of deregulation that will say the consumers are getting cheap energy, but you get what you pay for. And under normal circumstances, the system works well. But as soon as there’s an extreme event like this one, the system breaks down. The system needs to become more muscular, needs to be stronger. There needs to be more safeguards. There need to be more redundancies. I think that’s what we’re going to find, but these are still early days in assessing what went wrong exactly.

michael barbaro

Well, I know this has been an infuriating interview for you because you’ve had to repeat yourself 15 times, but I think we’re going to finally end this torture session for you. Thank you, Cliff. Stay warm.

clifford krauss

My pleasure. [INAUDIBLE]

michael barbaro

One second, we lost — we lost you — we lost you again, Cliff.

clifford krauss

Oh, no. And [INAUDIBLE].

michael barbaro

Sorry, Cliff. We’re losing you there. We’re so close.

We’ll be right back.

So Brad, we just got off the phone with Cliff Krauss, our colleague in Houston. Cliff, as you know, writes about energy for the business section of The Times. You write about policy and technology for the climate desk. So how are you in that capacity thinking about what just happened in Texas?

brad plumer

So I think what’s interesting about what happened in Texas is that the grid operators in Texas had seen some severe cold snaps before. They saw them in 2011. They saw them in 2018. And they kind of assumed that was about as bad as it would get, and it turned out this winter storm was much worse. It affected far more of the state. It was far colder and was outside what they had observed before. It was outside historical conditions. And when thinking about climate change, that’s sort of the big problem we face overall, in that so much of our infrastructure — all of our roads, our sewers, our dams, were essentially designed with the climate of the past in mind. But we know that that’s now changing, and that’s changing very rapidly. And that means a lot of what we had built may not work in the future. We have to plan differently. We have to reorganize so much of our infrastructure to prepare for those changes, and it’s just the huge problem that climate change poses for not just this country but all countries around the world.

michael barbaro

Well, give me some examples of what you mean where the current infrastructure, especially the energy infrastructure, now feels like it was developed for a previous era.

brad plumer

So I think one of the most vivid examples we saw pretty recently was the blackouts in California. They have been seeing a growing number of severe wildfires, and some of that is linked to climate change. Some of that is linked to the state’s forestry practices. But grid operators there, during the fire season, they have had to impose blackouts to avoid their power lines triggering large and catastrophic wildfires. So as the fire risk grows, the electric system that they have built has suddenly become incompatible with that risk.

michael barbaro

Right. They’re literally turning off the power to avoid winds knocking over power lines that would then cause even more wildfires.

brad plumer

That’s right. And you can look at examples outside of the power system. So we know that climate change is going to bring more frequent and stronger heat waves across much of the world, and particularly, it’s expected to bring heat waves into places that have never really experienced dangerous heat before. So if you look at Europe, Europe has over the past 20 years started suffering from bigger and more dangerous heat waves. We saw a big one in 2019. There was a really deadly one in 2003. And it’s not just that a heat wave is hitting this place. It’s that a lot of people aren’t really adapted to the heat. Their homes may not have air conditioners. Early on, cities had not set up cooling centers for vulnerable residents. And as a result, a heat wave is just much, much deadlier in a place that’s not quite adapted for it. So that’s another example of where the way we’ve built in the past is no longer a good guide to what we might expect in the future.

michael barbaro

Right. And of course, Texas is the most recent example of this. But it was not heat, which is what we associate with Texas. It was a deep freeze.

brad plumer

Yeah. And so this is what’s really interesting. By and large, we know that as the planet warms up, places like Texas are expected to get hotter on average and suffer fewer colder days overall. But there is this interesting emerging line of climate science research that I should say is still pretty hotly debated. But the idea is that as the Arctic warms up, the jet stream — this weather pattern that sort of keeps the icy air trapped in the Arctic — that jet stream can weaken over time, allowing the icy air to escape and to spill over into North America or Europe, causing particularly severe winter storms, like the one we saw this week. Now, again, scientists are still trying to figure out to what extent this is actually happening. There are some researchers who say we don’t see any sign of polar vortex disruptions increasing over time. This might just happen naturally even in the absence of climate change. Other researchers say actually, maybe we are seeing an increase in winter storms, and perhaps, this is linked to climate change. So this is a place where the jury is still out. But if it is true, that suggests we may have to prepare for something we didn’t expect in the past.

michael barbaro

OK, so let me make sure I understand this, Brad. Global warming might actually make it easier for very cold air to flow from the Arctic to a place like Texas, but because as you say, this is still a matter of scientific debate, it’s not clear that the storm we saw this week was due to climate change. But it might have been influenced by it.

brad plumer

Right. So what’s interesting here is that even though we know many of the broad patterns that will result from global warming — many places will get hotter, wet places are likely to get wetter, dry places are likely to get drier, the seas will rise — there is still this really troubling and unnerving possibility that climate change will throw a bunch of surprises at us that we still don’t fully understand and that are still very difficult to predict. So if you’re in Texas, it’s one thing if you were planning for increasing heat, and that’s what you’re expecting. You can build your infrastructure around that.

michael barbaro

Right.

brad plumer

If suddenly, climate change is throwing you this uncertain curveball where actually you may get these once a decade, maybe more, fierce winter storms, that becomes much harder to plan for because your entire grid is not really built around that possibility.

michael barbaro

And how would you plan for something that is very unlikely to happen? Because it hasn’t really happened before, right? I mean, is that even possible? Not just for Texas, but for any part of the American or really the global power grid, to be prepared for an era of, by definition, unpredictable extremes?

brad plumer

Yeah, it’s a huge challenge. And some of the experts I talked to when I asked them this exact question laid out some general principles. So obviously, improving forecasting to the best extent possible is really important. Although it’s never going to be perfect. Another is better scenario planning — really thinking hard about what can go wrong, and how, and where is the system likely to break and how can it break. But then there are also technological solutions to try to make the grid more resilient to extreme weather and climate change. So that might include things like expanding grids so that they cover a wider part of the country. That way if there’s a failure in one area, it could be backed up by electricity in another area.

michael barbaro

Right. And for example, Texas has an independent system and therefore was not linked in to those neighboring systems.

brad plumer

Yeah, and I imagine there will be a lot of discussion about whether that system makes sense, although Texas has always been resistant to connecting deeply with other grids. And then there are other possible technical solutions. In California, many homeowners have been investing in battery backup systems for when they might face rolling blackouts, but those tend to be costly. You have to invest upfront. And for many people, it’s worth it as a sort of insurance against blackouts and extreme events that might cause them to lose power.

michael barbaro

When you’re asking people to have a backup battery in their home, you seem to be more or less conceding that the overall infrastructure of a grid in any place is not up to the challenge.

brad plumer

Yeah, you are essentially conceding that there are going to be a lot of unexpected things that happen that are going to make it difficult to maintain the reliability of the grid, and people should be prepared for the worst.

michael barbaro

Right. And so is that where we are right now? These kind of stopgap measures you just mentioned. Because it feels like the idea of fixing the grid so that it can withstand these extreme climate events that are now becoming more and more common is going to take a while, right? So in the meantime, you either deal with more blackouts, or you buy a battery and put it in your basement and hope for the best. Is that kind of where we are or what?

brad plumer

I mean, I certainly hope not. Blackouts could be hugely disruptive, and you know, I think everyone wants to avoid them as much as possible — both the utilities and obviously the people who rely on electricity for daily life. But it is clear that as we see increasingly severe and often unpredictable severe weather, our power systems really are going to have to change. And if we don’t make those changes, well, then climate change will bring the change for us. Either we can adapt to changing conditions, prepare for increasing severe weather, or that weather will break the system.

michael barbaro

Right. As it kind of just did in Texas, where we can’t even finish our conversation with our colleague, Cliff, because there’s no electricity and no cell service.

brad plumer

Exactly.

michael barbaro

Well Brad, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

brad plumer

Any time. Thank you.

michael barbaro

On Tuesday, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, called for emergency reforms of the state’s power grid, saying it has been, quote, anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. In a statement on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump lashed out at the most powerful Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, for a quote, “lack of political insight, wisdom, skill and personality.” The personal attack came after McConnell voted to acquit Trump, but then critiqued him in a speech for his role in inciting the riot at the Capitol. Trump’s remarks suggest that after a period of silence during the impeachment trial, he plans to play an active role in Republican Party politics and in targeting lawmakers like McConnell, who he sees as having betrayed him. Today’s episode was produced by Michael Simon Johnson, Neena Pathak, Asthaa Chaturvedi and Alexandra Leigh Young. It was edited by Dave Shaw and engineered by Chris Wood.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

Source: New York Times

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