By Talula Thibault - March 2021 - Updated April 13, 2021
Suri and Texas
A blizzard of information has emerged (no pun intended) since Winter Storm Uri struck Texas last month, giving me plenty of reports, interviews, and evidence to sift through to understand the cause of the freak weather, the consequence of ignoring science, the poor judgement in Texas’ readiness planning, and the aftermath of finger pointing, where we find ourselves today.
What’s with that storm in the first place?
In an indisputably warming world, why did we get pelted with snow, ice, and freezing temperatures in a state known for its deserts and extreme heat? Is this going to keep happening? What role does climate change play in these extreme weather disasters? These are questions paleoclimatologists have been exploring for decades to better understand historical trends and more accurately predict future patterns.
When temperatures rise, the jet stream weakens and becomes wobbly. Sometimes this wobble, or oscillation, flings cold air out across the rest of the planet. What may be contributing to disruptions in the polar vortex is a phenomenon called Arctic or Polar amplification, which describes how the Arctic has warmed by more than twice the global average in recent decades, and its behaviour has been severely affected. Any change in the net radiation balance (for example, greenhouse gas intensification) tends to produce a larger change in temperatures near the poles than the planetary average. At times, cold air masses originating in the poles may be separated into parts just as we experienced a few weeks ago in the U.S. This meteorologic event is commonly connected to big snowstorms in the U.S. East. Other times, the air mass shifts across the globe, which often translates to bitter cold in parts of Europe. One month ago, both scenarios occurred. The vortex split first in early 2021, then again mid-January. By the end of January, the cold air displacement happened and wintery conditions poured into Europe and much of the United States. Scientists from the Woodwell Climate Research Center (Cape Cod) and Atmospheric Environmental Research (Greater Boston) agreed that “this should be considered not one but three polar vortex disruptions, though some scientists lump it all together.” To clarify, they recognized that while both the vortex and its wave are natural… “there is likely an element of climate change at work.”
Researchers continue to study the relationship between the Arctic and weather patterns across the globe, not always reaching the same conclusion that a moody polar vortex is a direct cause of human-induced climate change. Some climate trends, however, are quite obvious. Earth’s average surface temperature has risen approximately 2.12° F since the late 19th century, and the average continues to increase. The planet is heating up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only result of climate change is warmer weather. A wide range of catastrophic consequences should be expected in a world with natural systems completely out of whack. When a mass of cold air travels 4,000 miles from its usual habitat near the North Pole to the southern U.S., it’s a clear sign that the planet is in distress. Though not all scientists agree on every potential consequence of climate change, there is consensus that we will see more extreme weather events in the coming years and for this reason, it is in everyone’s collective best interest to heed the warnings of climate experts and proactively address the root causes of climate change. The polar vortex has been wandering more often in recent years, and although it may not have a direct causal relationship with Winter Storm Uri, the two are certainly linked.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc. (ERCOT) had an early indication of impending winter doom. ERCOT operates the state electrical grid, the Texas Interconnection, which supplies power to over 25 million Texas customers and represents approximately 90 percent of the state's electric load. It became the first independent system operator (ISO) in the United States and one of nine ISOs in all of North America. This means ERCOT controls the majority of Texas’ power, which comes from a stand-alone, deregulated grid.
ERCOT pricing is variable, in that it is determined solely on supply and demand, making it a competitive pricing market. Companies in this type of playing field work to bring the cheapest form of a good (in this case, energy) to the market, in pursuit of high profit. Deregulation, inexpensive forms of non-renewable energy, existing infrastructure, and hesitation to break from tradition have kept coal, oil and natural gas as dominant sources of Texas power for competitive prices. The downside is that short term benefits do not always persist in the long run, which translates to the Lone Star state not building out vast reliable infrastructure or investing sufficiently in clean, renewable energy. Furthermore, choosing to operate its own power system as an island, untethered to neighbouring states, blocks Texas from importing other states’ energy - even when it’s badly needed. Conversely, when Texas has a surplus of power, typically in the fall and spring when the weather is usually more moderate, all of that generated energy cannot be exported to other states, and ultimately goes to waste.
According to Houston news reports, ERCOT had alerted power generators as early as February 8th that freezing temperatures were on the way and would last from February 11 to 15. Their messaging records show that power companies were warned to “review fuel supplies, prepare to preserve fuel to best serve peak load, and notify ERCOT of any known or anticipated fuel restrictions.”
ERCOT board members met the day after it was clear that unusual weather was coming. During a two and a half hour meeting, under a minute of discussion was devoted to the predicted storm. In fact, President and CEO Bill Magness only touched on the “pretty frigid temperatures” headed to Texas for less than 40 seconds at the start of the virtual team meeting. Somewhat productively, new leadership roles were designated on the call. Sally Talberg was elected Chair and Peter Cramton was chosen as her vice-chair. Talberg, who joked that she was thinking of buying some large cowboy boots, lives in Michigan. Cramton likewise resides out of state, in California.
A week ahead of catastrophe, meteorologists warned viewers that temperatures across Texas would most likely stay below freezing for several consecutive days, including low temperatures in the teens (ºF).
The typically rare snow and ice that accumulated caused deadly automobile accidents. In Austin, twenty-six vehicles crashed on North State Highway. According to emergency officials, five people were hospitalized. In Fort Worth, an even more deadly traffic accident happened that same day. First responder Matt Zavadsky observed: “The roadway was so treacherous from the ice that several of the first responders were falling on the scene.” This was at a whopping 130 semitrailer-car-truck conglomeration that piled up on Interstate 35 near the downtown area. At least 65 people were brought to the hospital, and six did not survive.
The storm aptly moved in on “Singles’ Awareness Day.” ERCOT asked the general public to save energy where possible. Bill Magness of ERCOT declared: “We are experiencing record-breaking electric demand due to the extreme cold temperatures that have gripped Texas. At the same time, we are dealing with higher-than-normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units. We are asking Texans to take some simple, safe steps to lower their energy use during this time.” Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, Texas saw all 254 of its counties affected by Winter Storm Uri – something they hadn’t seen in exactly 126 years.
February 15th – 17th
Snow kept falling and accumulating throughout Monday. The air burned your skin if you went outside. The news discussed hypothermia and frost bite, warning those fortunate enough to access television. Any precipitation that melted during the sunlit days thereafter quickly froze overnight when the temperatures returned to single digits, thus making conditions slippery and dangerous to drive, walk, bike, or get around. By February 16th, at least 4.5 million Texan energy customers were without power. Millions of people lost access to water due to frozen and burst pipes. The unhoused population was particularly impacted as a result of being without proper shelter, clothing, or repose from the elements. Their death total was confirmed to be at least six by this date.
Instead of accepting that the power system in Texas failed, Governor Greg Abbott accused renewable, clean energy as the scapegoat behind the February disaster. As the winter crisis was unfolding, Abbott took the time to interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News. The conservative governor critiqued green technology without supporting evidence. “The Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” claimed Abbott, though he has been unable to provide facts to back this claim. Besides ignoring the fact that professional experts agreed that fossil fuels were the biggest culprit behind Texas’ energy outages, Abbott added that wind and solar energy losses “thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis.”
No matter Americans’ political tendencies, we all seem to agree that a better job needs to be done at holding elected leaders accountable for ensuring the health and safety of their constituents.
It took a full work week for ERCOT to recover from the emergency operation and restore power to Texans. By Friday, the blankets of snow from Uri finally began to thaw and melt, and residents emerged from their shelters like freshly hatched butterflies. San Antonio set a record low on February 19th with 19ºF temperatures, but overall, the state was starting to warm back up to normal.
Last Week of February
At least six board members of ERCOT submitted notice of their resignation February 23rd. A joint statement revealed concerns about "out-of-state" council leadership and recognized peoples' "pain and suffering" during the February snowstorm. "With the right follow through, Texas can lead the nation in investing in infrastructure and emergency preparedness to withstand the effects of severe weather events — whether in the form of flooding, drought, extreme temperatures, or hurricanes," the letter said. "We want what is best for ERCOT and Texas."
The Texas Legislature swiftly began trial hearings on the power outages February 25th, by invite only.
By March 1st, over 400,000 Texans still had to boil their water before consumption. On the 4th, ERCOT’s CEO was fired as a result of his mismanagement of the crisis.
Preliminary data from the Texas State Health Department released March 15th revealed that at least 57 people died in the state as a direct consequence of the winter storm in February. Exposure to extreme cold leads to hypothermia, a well-known killer. But extreme cold in a state unused to such conditions also leads to deadly automobile accidents, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls and fire” largely due to people just trying to stay warm.
“Texas set the stage for its energy crisis more than 80 years ago,” according to one NBC headline. Mainland USA has a split-system energy grid that serves three distinct regions: Western Interconnection, Eastern Interconnection and ERCOT. While Texas is one of the biggest energy producers and consumers in the States, it was designed to rely on its own self-sufficiency, and is therefore not bound or protected by federal regulations. Critics have said the “lack of oversight allowed the state to shirk its responsibilities under federal requirements that would have better prepared the energy grid for winter weather.” With no legal oversight, the Texan energy provider got away with being under-equipped and overwhelmed by the severe winter storm.
In order to maintain the Texas power grid’s functioning, it must generate sufficient power to keep a frequency of around 60 hertz. But as the Valentine’s snow ordeal struck in 2021, temperatures plummeted, snow- and ice-covered Texas, and everyone wanting heat cranked up their thermostats, thus skyrocketing demand from the grid. At the same time, Texas power plants were being forced offline due to the cold weather. Natural gas, coal, nuclear and wind energy sources all failed to some degree. Equipment froze up, pipelines burst. An astonishing 14.5 million Texans lost access to water (some are still having issues with sanitary and/or dependable resources).
ERCOT officials explained that when the grid has not enough power supply to meet demand, then the grid’s frequency drops below that mandatory 60 hertz level. In turn, this physically damages necessary equipment that moves power around Texas. This can easily downward spiral and force additional power plants to close down—eventually presenting an utterly complete failure of the power system.
Exactly four minutes and twenty-three seconds after it dipped below 59.4 hertz, the frequency started to increase as customers were increasingly kicked off the grid’s service. What’s unsettling to think about, is that had that frequency threshold stayed below the minimum for another four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, the lights could very well still be out in Texas today. It could be weeks if not longer to recover from such a tragedy, which we narrowly avoided here in the Lone Star state.
ERCOT’s plan for the “once-in-a-lifetime storm” as I’ve heard it constantly brandished, was to implement controlled outages, making no one experience an absence of power for longer than 40-minute intervals, while at the same time lessening demand on a strained grid. Then 356 generators were “knocked offline during the storm, nearly doubling what Texas experienced during its last major winter storm in 2011.” Evidently, ERCOT had not revised its strategy for managing a more severe weather event down the road. Prudence is powerful.
The tragic irony thus unfolds. On average, we are dealing with more intense weather events more frequently in a warming world. The climate is changing because humans are pushing the planet past its threshold of greenhouse gasses by burning fossil fuels and emitting things like methane and carbon dioxide into the air. The biggest problem from Texas’ power failure? The cold conditions (caused indirectly/directly by our unsustainable actions) effectively stopped delivery of natural gas to fossil-fuel-burning power plants. The issue is thus at the source. Had we stopped depending on fossil fuels back when we learned how damaging they are to the planet, we could have saved ourselves a (literal) world of problems.
We need energy that is clean, reliable, and climate resilient. The time has come for a total transition to renewable power.
Reactions in the Aftermath
James Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Studies Program at the University of Georgia told NPR: “first of all, let's kill the sort of misinformation out there on renewable energy and wind farms because it's clear that that's not the sole issue here. Wind farms operate in much colder and icier places than Texas.”
White House Assistant Press Secretary, Vedant Patel, said “Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role in creating millions of good paying, union jobs, creating a clean energy economy, and meeting the President’s goal of reaching a net zero emissions future by 2050.”
Despite the sunshine and greenery returning to Austin, I’m still hearing from friends, colleagues, and passerby who were seriously affected, in some cases made homeless, by the rare yet intense event. I know many people who are still re-building from the property damage they sustained or taking extra shifts to make up for a week without hourly labor.
After over a year without ‘normalcy,’ Texas had started to feel like the end was near. But Winter Storm Uri reminded us once again that we are dependent on Nature; not the other way around. We must study, respect, appreciate, and guard our global environment, so that we may not suffer the consequences.
For everyone’s sake, it is imperative that we recognize the errors that occurred: an isolated, unregulated power market, total self-reliance without planned redundancy, inadequate political leadership, and not enough durable green technology or renewable energy. Austin (and Texas at large) is now tasked to put in place strategies for climate resiliency and green infrastructure, and constantly push for innovative techniques to adapt to a (momentarily) unbalanced global ecosystem.
From a company standpoint, I believe that Longevity Partners is uniquely suited to respond to the plight of an unstable planet under a changing climate. We’ve positioned ourselves to solve existing issues and prevent new ones from arising. Everyday, our experienced professionals retrofit previously constructed edifices, advise new construction projects on best industry practices, help clients implement competitive strategies, and unlock sustainability across the real estate sector. By offering a range of services from building benchmarking to optimization and certifications, from electric vehicles to photovoltaic studies, from legislative assessments to corporate peer reviews, from carbon accounting to carbon offsetting and more, Longevity is on track to be the biggest sustainability firm in the world. Our timing to open our US office in Austin, Texas could not be riper.
*Updated April 13th*
Breaking news from the Texas Tribune has reported that ERCOT is asking electricity consumers to “conserve power” this (Tuesday) afternoon, as another stalled cold front over the state is causing restricted conditions for the Texas grid – at the same time that a high number of energy-producing plants are currently offline for maintenance needs. While “it does not expect customer outages like those caused in February’s winter storm, one of the most deadly and expensive disasters in the state’s history,” the state’s main power grid operator is once again shaking our trust (and calm confidence in air conditioning).
Arellano, Anastasia. “Texas Is Experiencing Snow In All Counties for the first Time in 126 Years.” 12Tomatoes. https://12tomatoes.com/snow-in-texas/
Arnold, Robert. “Power Failure: What. Warnings did ERCOT send and when?” KPRC. 19 February 2021. https://www.click2houston.com/news/investigates/2021/02/20/power-failure-what-warnings-did-ercot-send-and-when/
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Collier, Dillon. “ERCOT board meeting last week included joke about cowboy boots, less than 40 seconds of storm talk.” KSAT. 18 February 2021. https://www.ksat.com/news/defenders/2021/02/18/ercot-board-meeting-last-week-included-joke-about-cowboy-boots-less-than-40-seconds-of-storm-talk/
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Mena, Bryan. “Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans blamed green energy for Texas’ power woes. But the state runs on fossil fuels.” The Texas Tribune. 17 February 2021. https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/17/abbott-republicans-green-energy/
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