Texas leads the nation in wind power, with nearly 15,000 wind turbines producing 23% of the Lone Star State’s electricity last year. Many of the turbines shut down when the cold descended on Texas.
It turns out that only a third of the power outages in the state resulted from wind turbines failing in the cold. Power plants that use fossil fuels — coal and natural gas ― accounted for two-thirds of the power outages.
But we couldn’t help but wonder why wind turbines in cold-weather states like New York can operate in the winter with seemingly little trouble when their counterparts in Texas can’t.
The huge Maple Ridge Wind Farm, in fact, operates year-round in the Tug Hill north of Syracuse, an area famous for its bitter cold winters that often pile up 200 inches or more of snow.
So we went to the experts — EDP Renewables, which operates Maple Ridge and other wind farms.
EDPR is the largest owner and operator of wind power in New York and the fourth-largest in the United States. Locally, in addition to Maple Ridge, it operates the Madison Wind Farm in Madison County. EDPR’s New York wind farms produce enough clean electricity to power more than 298,000 New York homes.
Amy Kurt, senior manager of regional government affairs for EDP, said EDP and other wind power operators in this neck of the woods equip their turbines to handle the cold and, even more importantly, the ice that often comes with the cold.
“There are a variety of cold weather and anti-icing technologies that are used on wind turbines in the coldest regions,” she said. “These technologies help prevent the buildup of ice on turbine blades, detect ice when it cannot be prevented, and remove ice safely when it is detected.”
Ice clinging to the blades of a wind turbine poses big problems. It adds weight and can throw the spinning blades out of balance, potentially damaging vital gear mechanisms. It also can change the aerodynamics of the blades, preventing the wind from making them spin.
Kurt said EDP’s turbines are equipped with sensors that detect ice by sensing the imbalance the ice causes.
“When there’s an imbalance, we know something is not right,” she said.
The sensors can even tell which blades have ice on them and which ones don’t. When ice is detected, heating elements inside the blades turn on to melt the ice.
For safety reasons, the turbines are shut down while the heating elements melt off the ice, Kurt said. That way, there’s no chance of ice flying off spinning blades, potentially damaging the turbines or, worse, striking someone on the ground, she said.
“We’d rather the ice drop below the turbine,” she said.
Once the ice is removed, the turbines are turned back on and the blades can safely spin in the wind again.
In Texas, wind turbines are not equipped with such de-icing packages because operators there never expected to need them, Kurt said.
“Turbines in Texas are built for the type of temperatures they usually get in Texas, where it’s 110 degrees, not 10 degrees,” she said. “It’s a cost thing.”
“But to the purveyors of the big lie—Republicans like Greg Abbott and his friends on Fox News—this very real and acute suffering is just a vehicle for their political objectives,” says Chris Hayes of the GOP blaming the Green New Deal as millions of Texans freeze. Aired on 02/17/2021.
Conservatives lying about what’s causing the rolling blackouts and power outages in Texas.
Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades. That, plus a deregulated energy market largely isolated from the rest of the country’s power grid, left the state alone to deal with the crisis, experts said.
Millions of Texans have gone days without power or heat in subfreezing temperatures brought on by snow and ice storms. Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.
While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state’s energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state’s power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.
“Nuclear units, gas units, wind turbines, even solar, in different ways — the very cold weather and snow has impacted every type of generator,” said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.
Energy and policy experts said Texas’ decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choosing to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.
Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.
“Clearly we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a now-retired former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group who advocated for changes after in 2011 when Texas faced a similar energy crisis.
“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies’] rush for profits,” he said.
It is possible to “winterize” natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines, and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.
LESSONS FROM 2011
In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. A decade later, Texas power generators have still not made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline during extreme cold, experts said.
Woodfin, of ERCOT, acknowledged that there’s no requirement to prepare power infrastructure for such extremely low temperatures. “Those are not mandatory, it’s a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things,” he said. “There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point.”
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., is currently developing mandatory standards for “winterizing” energy infrastructure, a spokesperson said.
Texas politicians and regulators were warned after the 2011 storm that more “winterizing” of power infrastructure was necessary, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation shows. The large number of units that tripped offline or couldn’t start during that storm, “demonstrates that the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds,” regulators wrote at the time. More thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented the outages, the report said.
“This should have been addressed in 2011 by the Legislature after that market meltdown, but there was no substantial follow up,” by state politicians or regulators, said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics professor at the University of Houston. “They skipped on down the road with business as usual.”
ERCOT officials said that some generators implemented new winter practices after the freeze a decade ago, and new voluntary “best practices” were adopted. Woodfin said that during subsequent storms, such as in 2018, it appeared that those efforts worked. But he said this storm was even more extreme than regulators anticipated based on models developed after the 2011 storm. He acknowledged that any changes made were “not sufficient to keep these generators online,” during this storm.
After temperatures plummeted and snow covered large parts of the state Sunday night, ERCOT warned increased demand might lead to short-term, rolling blackouts. Instead, huge portions of the largest cities in Texas went dark and have remained without heat or power for days. On Tuesday, nearly 60% of Houston households and businesses were without power. Of the total installed capacity to the electric grid, about 40% went offline during the storm, Woodfin said.
CLIMATE WAKE-UP CALL
Climate scientists in Texas agree with ERCOT leaders that this week’s storm was unprecedented in some ways. They also say it’s evidence that Texas is not prepared to handle an increasing number of more volatile and more extreme weather events.
“We cannot rely on our past to guide our future,” said Dev Niyogi, a geosciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin who previously served as the state climatologist for Indiana. He noted that previous barometers are becoming less useful as states see more intense weather covering larger areas for prolonged periods of time. He said climate scientists want infrastructure design to consider a “much larger spectrum of possibilities” rather than treating these storms as a rarity, or a so-called “100-year event”.
Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist at Texas Tech University, highlighted a 2018 study that showed how a warming Arctic is creating more severe polar vortex events. “It’s a wake up call to say, ‘What if these are getting more frequent?’” Hayhoe said. “Moving forward, that gives us even more reason to be more prepared in the future.”
Still, Hayhoe and Niyogi acknowledged there’s uncertainty about the connection between climate change and cold air outbreaks from the Arctic.
Other Texas officials looked beyond ERCOT. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins argued that the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry — a remit that includes natural gas wells and pipelines — prioritized commercial customers over residents by not requiring equipment to be better equipped for cold weather. The RRC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Other states require you to have cold weather packages on your generation equipment and require you to use, either through depth or through materials, gas piping that is less likely to freeze,” Jenkins said.
Texas’ electricity market is also deregulated, meaning that no one company owns all the power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks. Instead, several different companies generate and transmit power, which they sell on the wholesale market to yet more players. Those power companies in turn are the ones that sell to homes and businesses. Policy experts disagree on whether a different structure would have helped Texas navigate these outages. “I don’t think deregulation itself is necessarily the thing to blame here,” said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
HISTORY OF ISOLATION
Texas’ grid is also mostly isolated from other areas of the country, a set up designed to avoid federal regulation. It has some connectivity to Mexico and to the Eastern U.S. grid, but those ties have limits on what they can transmit. The Eastern U.S. is also facing the same winter storm that is creating a surge in power demand. That means that Texas has been unable to get much help from other areas.
“If you’re going to say you can handle it by yourself, step up and do it,” said Hirs, the UH energy fellow, of the state’s pursuit of an independent grid with a deregulated market. “That’s the incredible failure.”
Rhodes, of UT Austin, said Texas policy makers should consider more connections to the rest of the country. That, he acknowledged, could come at a higher financial cost — and so will any improvements to the grid to prevent future disasters. There’s an open question as to whether Texas leadership will be willing to fund, or politically support, any of these options.
“We need to have a conversation about if we believe that we’re going to have more weather events like this,” Rhodes said. “On some level it comes down to if you want a more resilient grid, we can build it, it will just cost more money. What are you willing to pay? We’re going to have to confront that.”
The agenda mirrors many of the policies that Inslee has piloted in Washington. Next week, the governor will sign a bill committing the Evergreen State to a carbon-neutral grid by 2030, and a zero-emissions grid by 2045. It will represent a long-awaited victory for Inslee: After years of trying, and severalfailed attempts to put a statewide price on carbon pollution, Inslee will succeed in passing an ambitious climate policy in Washington. And he has found this success not by trying to tax carbon pollution, but by going sector by sector, coaxing and prodding individual parts of the economy to change their ways. It is a strategy he now hopes to bring to the White House.
On July 23rd 2012 particles from a much larger solar ejection blew across the orbital path of Earth, missing it by days. Had it hit America, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have destroyed perhaps a quarter of high-voltage transformers ..
.. America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world.
.. Eventually, months later, about three quarters of the benighted area has power for at least ten hours a day. It would have been worse had 41 countries not dismantled transformers for reassembly in North America. (The most generous donors have to accept rolling blackouts.) Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge. Roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.
.. The sun probably poses a greater risk of a sustained outage than hackers or saboteurs
.. a complete collapse of the grid could probably be prevented by protecting several hundred critical transformers for perhaps $1m each.
If humanity burns through all its fossil fuel reserves, there is the potential to warm the planet by perhaps more than 10 degrees Celsius and raise sea levels by hundreds of feet.
This is a warming spike comparable in magnitude to that so far measured for the End-Permian mass extinction.
.. The last time it was 4 degrees warmer there was no ice at either pole and sea level was hundreds of feet higher than it is today.
.. in the coming centuries it’s not impossible that we might be headed back to the Eocene climate of 50 million years ago, when there were Alaskan palm trees and alligators splashed in the Arctic Circle.
.. “Lizards will be fine, birds will be fine,”
.. Huber says that, mass extinction or not, it’s our tenuous reliance on an aging and inadequate infrastructure—perhaps, most ominously, on power grids—coupled with the limits of human physiology that may well bring down our world.
.. “The problem is that humans can’t even handle a hot week today without the power grid failing on a regular basis,” he said, noting that the aging patchwork power grid in the United States is built with components that are allowed to languish for more than a century before being replaced.
.. By the year 2050, according to a 2014 MIT study, there will also be 5 billion people living in water-stressed areas.
.. “Thirty to fifty years from now, more or less, the water wars are going to start,” Huber said
.. “None of the economists are modeling what happens to a country’s GDP if 10 percent of the population is refugees sitting in refugee camps.
.. If people don’t have economic hope and they’re displaced, they tend to get mad and blow things up. It’s the kind of world in which the major institutions, including nations as a whole, have their existence threatened by mass migration.
.. Huber calculated their temperature thresholds using the so-called wet-bulb temperature, which basically measures how much you can cool off at a given temperature. If humidity is high, for instance, things like sweat and wind are less effective at cooling you down, and the wet-bulb temperature accounts for this.
.. Wet-bulb temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius or higher are lethal to humanity.
.. Above this limit, it is impossible for humans to dissipate the heat they generate indefinitely and they die of overheating in a matter of hours, no matter how hard they try to cool off.
.. 7 degrees Celsius of warming would begin to render large parts of the globe lethally hot to mammals.
.. truly huge swaths of the planet currently inhabited by humans would exceed 35 degrees Celsius wet-bulb temperatures and would have to be abandoned.
.. “In the near term—2050 or 2070—the Midwest United States is going to be one of the hardest hit,” said Huber. “There’s a plume of warm, moist air that heads up through the central interior of the US during just the right season, and man, is it hot and sticky. You just add a couple of degrees and it gets really hot and sticky.
.. the Hajj, which brings 2 million religious pilgrims to Mecca each year, will be a physically impossible religious obligation to fulfill due to the limits of heat stress in the region in just a few decades.
.. “You want to know how societies collapse?” Huber said.