Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Power Failure

It’s winter, but it’s not an ordinary one.

Americans from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border were pummeled by a historic winter storm on Monday as heavy snow, freezing rain and Arctic temperatures made highways impassable, closed airports and crippled the electricity supply in Texas on one of its coldest days in decades.

The dangerous storm, part of a series of weather systems sweeping the country this week, resulted in accumulating snow and ice across a wide swath of states that rarely see wintry precipitation, including heavily populated areas of Texas. The storm knocked out power to more than 4 million households in Texas, raising questions about the durability of the power grid in the United States’ second-most-populated state, and one of its fastest growing.

The electricity issues, which authorities warned could in some places persist for days, resulted in blackouts that prevented residents from being able to heat their homes, cook meals or work remotely. The power cuts even knocked out electricity at a Houston-area warehouse where 8,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine were stored, forcing health officials to rush to distribute 4,000 of them to anyone they could before the doses spoiled.

“The Texas electric system is facing an unprecedented power shortage situation due to the extreme winter weather impacting the entire state, including Houston & the region,” CenterPoint Energy, which serves more than 2 million customers in the Houston area, said in a statement Monday. “Texans’ electricity consumption needs have far surpassed current power generation.”

The severity of the blackouts, which analysts said were a sign that governments and utility companies did not prepare adequately for the storm, were traced to soaring consumer demand for heat as well as the inherent dangers that extreme cold poses for Southern power systems that were built to handle summer heat over frigid winter.

“To see this kind of impact on a wide scale across the grid is very unusual, particularly in the winter,” said Rebecca Miller, a Texas energy analyst for Wood Mackenzie consulting firm. Miller said the rolling blackouts on Monday are the only things that prevented the state’s electricity transmission from collapsing. “But I was expecting a little bit more preparation. . . . What we really saw was a bit more of a reactive response than a proactive one.”

In Texas, rolling blackouts were also reported in the major population centers of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, where snow and sleet reached the Alamo. Snow even accumulated on the beach in Galveston, a city where residents are far more accustomed to hurricanes than they are to wintry weather.

I’ve lived in places where winter is long, deep, and dangerous, and now I live where summers can be the same. The one thing we depended on in both places was a reliable power grid. In all the years I lived in northern Michigan where we got fourteen feet of snow every year and temperatures were routinely below 0 F, we never had rolling blackouts. Granted, this kind of cold is very unusual for Kansas or Texas, but it’s going to become more common thanks to climate change.  So they had better get ready, just as we are ready here in Florida for the next hurricane.

To give you an idea of the depth of this cold, at 6:00 a.m. this morning, it was 7 F in Petoskey, Michigan; a normal reading for this time of year. In Independence, Kansas, it is -13.  That’s the same as Minneapolis.