- Beatriz Diez
- BBC World News
It claims to be the largest energy producer in the United States and one of the largest in the world, but this week millions of its inhabitants were left in the dark.
The arctic cold storm that hits Texas left many of its residents without water and electricity, who had to survive the cold temperatures without having the usual comforts.
The electrical current has been restored little by little, but conditions remain critical in a state not used to these cold waves.
Lack of habit should not translate into lack of preparation, especially in a state with so many sources of energy, experts say.
How was arrive to this situation?
Energy capital of the world
Texas is the powerhouse of America’s energy.
According to federal data, this southern state of the country generates almost twice as much energy as Florida, which is next.
Is he number one status in both crude oil and natural gas, according to the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA, for its acronym in English).
It accumulated a shocking 41% of the United States’ oil production in 2019 and a quarter of its natural gas production.
Wind power is also on the rise in Texas, which produced about 28% of all electricity created by this means in 2019, according to the EIA.
But the problem is that Texas is not only an energy superpower, but it tends to have above-average temperatures and that means that its infrastructure is not prepared for cold storms.
“We have had problems distributing gas and electricity for various reasons,” Michael Webber, professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, tells BBC Mundo.
“The energy demand was very high due to the cold And that same cold caused some plants to fail: they shut down and stopped working. It also made it difficult to supply natural gas, “he explains.
“The combination of natural gas and electricity shortages creates a crisis with intermittent blackouts like the one we have seen.”
Natural gas and coal plants need water to stay operational, but water facilities froze and others lost access to the electricity they need to be operational.
“The capacity of some companies that generate electricity has been frozen. This includes natural gas and coal generators,” wrote the Governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, on Twitter.
Combined, natural gas and coal account for more than half of the energy the state used in 2020.
The Texas energy system has some particular characteristics that could have influenced the crisis experienced this week.
Unlike other states, Texas made a conscious decision to isolate its electrical grid from the rest of the country.
This means that when all goes well, Texas cannot export excess energy to neighboring states. But in situations of need it cannot matter either, so it was impossible for energy to be redirected from other places when the state system failed.
For Professor Webber, the reason for the decision to adopt this system is simple and clear: “Avoid federal oversight and regulatory attention from Washington DC.”
“An independent network has several benefits, facilitates the way to collect renewable energy and improves the operation of the electrical power line “, he indicates.
“But without a doubt it has its drawbacks, the main one preventing support from other states or countries when difficulties arise,” he adds.
On the other hand, since 2002 the energy market in Texas has been partially deregulated, something that also happens in other states, but not in such a widespread way.
For example, as the economist Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times, Texas did not give power companies incentives to install backup systems to deal with potential emergencies.
This made electricity cheaper under normal circumstances, but left the system vulnerable when trouble struck.
According to a 2014 report from the Texas Coalition for Affordable Electricity (TCAP), “deregulation cost Texans about $ 22 billion between 2002 and 2012. And residents of the deregulated market pay considerably higher prices than those who live in parts of the state still under regulation. “
TCAP found that an average consumer in one of the non-deregulated areas, such as Austin or San Antonio, paid $ 228 less in 2012 than consumers in deregulated areas.
However, the report concluded that reregulating the deregulated market would not solve the problem, and TCAP suggested in return a series of reforms designed to increase market efficiency.
The lessons of the past
While the snow and ice scenes we have seen these days in Texas are unusual, there is no lack of background.
In 2011, a decade ago, another powerful cold storm that left millions of Texans without power, prompting the state to consider possible solutions to prevent a similar situation from recurring.
In a 357-page report, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission urged the state to acclimatize its power plants for the winter, with thermal insulation, heat pipes and other measures.
However, the report appears to have been ignored because many of the main generators were not acclimatized, especially in the natural gas system.
“Apparently we didn’t learn the right lessons or we didn’t implement the solutions based on those lessons, so now we have a repeat of the same situation,” laments Professor Webber.
Crossing of accusations
In this context, there has been no lack of voices that have pointed to renewable energies and even the Green New Deal, which is still only a proposal by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other left-wing legislators, as responsible for the crisis.
“It is ridiculous to hold the Green New Deal responsible, first because it does not exist yet. But also because Texas has an independent energy system, so legislators from other states or Washington DC do not make decisions for Texas when it comes to electricity,” reacts Michael Webber .
“It is also ridiculous to hold renewable energy responsible because in Texas we have a grid dominated by natural gas and coal, which account for 70% of electricity. Nuclear energy is 10% and wind and solar energy 20%. Four fifths come from conventional sources, so it is ridiculous to blame those other options, “he highlights.
Those seeking accountability also look to the Texas Electrical Reliability Council (Ercot), a nonprofit body that controls most of the state’s electrical grid.
Governor Abbott said Ercot reform is an emergency priority that the state legislature must take on and announced that there will be an investigation into the blackouts to determine long-term solutions.
Towards the future
For Texas to be able to rely on its great energy potential without having to rely on good luck to cope with cold storms, experts agree that it has to acclimatize all its facilities.
For Michael Webber, there are many things that can be done to avoid scenes like the current ones.
“Can acclimatize power plants and gas system to run in the cold. We can invest in more efficient systems in our homes so they don’t need as much energy to heat.
“We can consider other technologies such as energy storage or microgrids to make the overall grid more resilient.
“We can interconnect with other networks. We can diversify our system so that it is not so dominated by gas,” he concludes.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC News Mundo. Download our app and activate them so you don’t miss our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.