Texas has always 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 flood” in five years, I remarked to a friend, “We’re going to have to stop calling them that.”
Last week, Texas was hit by a different kind of extreme weather event: Record-smashing cold temperatures and heavy snow. That, in turn, led to massive power outages across the state. Lives were lost as people struggled to stay warm in places like Houston. Just 10 years ago, frigid temperatures had a similar, albeit less severe, effect on the state.
Of course, this uptick in extreme weather is not limited to Texas. Numerous places across the country—and indeed the globe—have experienced multiple “historic” weather events in recent years. Last year, droughts in California led to six of the largest wildfires in the state’s history. In 2017 and 2018, British Columbia had two consecutive record-setting forest fire seasons. In August 2020, a derecho—a line of intense wind and thunderstorms—swept across the Midwest, flattening crops, disrupting utilities and telecommunications, and causing an estimated $11 billion in property damage.
All these extreme events have impacted utility operations. In some cases—as with the recent cold snap in Texas—the impact was severe. And yet we continue to label these storms “historic” and “unprecedented,” opting not to spend money on preparing our infrastructure to withstand conditions outside the norm—even as the norm continues to change. The result is increased suffering in the aftermath and even higher expenditures to repair the preventable damage. But the ongoing crisis in Texas should make it clear: This calculus needs to change.
The difficulties in Texas are primarily caused by two factors. The first is that over the years, Texas has increasingly isolated its grid from neighboring states. That means it cannot import power as easily as others. Under normal circumstances, this is not a huge problem—Texas has a great diversity of electricity generation, both by type and geography. But when a massive weather event hits a large portion of the state, there are few options for backup.
The second is that utilities, refineries, and factories were simply unprepared for this extreme weather event. For that matter, so were homes. Pipes burst. Water lines froze. Moisture inside equipment caused instruments to stop working. Even the South Texas Project Electric Generating Station, a nuclear power plant on the Texas Gulf Coast, had to shut down. The company that operates the plant reported that the deep freeze had caused a feedwater pump to trip, which caused one of the plant’s nuclear reactors to go offline, as it’s designed to do when it detects a potential hazard.
But other states manage much colder weather every year without these types of power outages. Why did the deep cold paralyze South Texas?
I have worked as a chemical engineer in refineries in Montana and in Texas. I have worked in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, and on the Big Island of Hawaii. From an operational standpoint, energy plants in each of these places look very different. Every location experiences weather events that require specific design considerations, many of which may be unnecessary in other locations.
For example, in Montana, we could reasonably expect that the temperatures might reach 40 below zero. As a result, more money is spent ensuring that critical infrastructure is either well insulated or located inside buildings. Texas, on the other hand, does not take those precautions. While buildings there can withstand hurricane winds, they are not insulated to endure harsh winters. In the past, it was reasonable to expect that Houston would not experience snow and temperatures dropping to the single digits. Yes, it could happen, but businesses do not typically guard against events that are perceived to be exceedingly rare. The costs are considered to outweigh the risk.
But the aftermath of this storm will likely cost many billions of dollars to repair. In addition to the damage, businesses and homeowners have been left with astronomical bills. As the natural gas infrastructure froze, it was unable to completely meet the simultaneous demands for heat and power. Surge pricing was meant to provide a market-based solution for crises such as this, but it clearly failed to curtail demand enough to meet dwindling supplies.