Weather can be an unforgiving antagonist. In the age of climate change, it can be extreme and unpredictable.
Texas experienced a heavy dose of the weather's wrath when a precipitously cold front swept through the state, bringing with it snow and historic low temperatures, resulting in numerous deaths and leaving millions without power.
Sub-zero temperatures in Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle were 20ºF-30ºF below normal, caused by a chain of atmospheric events that sent chilly arctic air south.
The extreme conditions wreaked havoc on the state's infrastructure. The icy cold froze up pipelines, power generators and windmills, leaving millions of customers stranded. When the cold front first hit, more than 4.4 million people were without power.
While the event was not normal, it was not entirely unexpected. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas(ERCOT) in Austin is the independent system operator that manages the flow of electric power for most of the state. Its territory includes 26 million customers, representing about 90% of the state’s electric load. On Monday Feb. 8, the ISO issued an Operating Condition Notice (OCN) for extreme cold weather in anticipation of potential tight grid conditions the following week.
The deadly cold had the compound effect of increasing demand for energy precisely at the time that the system was least able to provide it. Within days, ERCOT was implementing rolling blackouts to prevent complete collapse of the state's electric grid.
As of Feb. 18, ERCOT reported that nearly 36,000 megawatts (MW) of generation remains on forced outage due to the event.
Nothing breeds controversy like a crisis, and the situation in Texas has triggered intense political debate. While many have pointed to the state's growing reliance on renewable power as the culprit, the reality is much more complicated.
Texas has enthusiastically embraced wind power. In fact, it is the nation's leading generator of electricity from wind. But wind did not play an outsized role in the state's crisis this week. ERCOT has reported that as many as 46,000 MW of generation has been forced off the system due to the extreme winter weather. Of that, 28,000 MW was thermal (gas, coal and nuclear) and 18,000 MW was from wind and solar. That’s roughly 60% and 40%, respectively.