AUSTIN, Texas — “I often hear previous generations say, 'It was never this hot when I was growing up.' And then to look at the data and say, 'You're right, it wasn't this hot when you were growing up,'” Jen Brady, lead analyst for Climate Central, said.
Climate Central is a nonprofit where scientists study weather trends.
“We say ‘climate change’ and not ‘global warming,’ necessarily, because we're looking at wacky weather in all ways,” Brady said.
She found one trend pointing to Texas and the nation warning of possible power failures.
“I think the first thing is just the acknowledgment that we're going to require a more robust grid that was built previously,” Brady said.
“This is a very alarming trend,” Doug Lewin, president of Stoic Energy Consulting, said.
Stoic Energy advises energy leaders about how to build a clean, sustainable power grid.
“Our systems have not caught up to the climate reality that we're experiencing,” Lewin said.
Power companies must report to the Department of Energy (DOE) each time 50,000 or more customers lose power. The DOE data doesn’t show what really happened.
Hundreds died during a February 2021 winter storm. Millions lost power for days as temperatures remained in single digits.
Regulators and researchers reported power plants, natural gas lines and renewable energy sources failed at some point due to ice and freezing temperatures.
Companies’ federal filings neither mention ice nor freeze.
“I would say, generally, the more specific they can be, the better because it helps folks like you understand, it helps researchers and, you know, and academia and helps regulators,” Lewin said.
Climate Central analyzed reports from 2000 to 2021. Through their research, Brady and her team found what really happened during the weather-related power outages.
"Climate Central's report shows us is that there are so many other times that large numbers of people are losing power. And it's interesting the way some politicians, and some media, and some of the general public are talking about these things and saying, 'Oh, when those failures happened, that's not a failure of the grid.' And sometimes it makes my head hurt," Lewin said. "I'm like, 'Of course it's a failure of the grid if anybody is without power for any period of time. What they mean to say is, it's not a failure of the bulk power grid. It is not a failure of 'we didn't have enough generation to meet demand.' That's what they mean. But a failure on the distribution grid is still a failure and it is still extremely dangerous."
The bulk power grid uses high-voltage transmission lines to move power from rural wind farms, power plants and solar farms to concentrated populations. The distribution grid transforms that bulk power to go on lower-voltage power lines for homes and businesses. No one company owns both transmission and distribution lines for the entire State.
“Some of these grids are very, very old, are not going to hold up against the rain and the winds and the things that we're encountering now,” Brady said.
“The Climate Central report shows us that there are so many other times that large numbers of people are losing power,” Lewin said.
The report also shows ways to build a more resilient power grid.
“Upgrading the nation’s electrical infrastructure to become more resilient and reliable will be expensive and challenging. But there are a number of promising and innovative solutions to build electricity security into our system now, especially alongside the anticipated near-term growth in renewable energy capacity,” the report shows.
It shows microgrids, smart grid technologies, hardening measures, bidirectional charging and incentives.
According to the report:
“Microgrids are self-sufficient energy systems with a smaller, distinct geographic footprint, such as a college campus, hospital complex or neighborhood. Their relatively small scale also makes microgrids more easily powered by renewable energy sources, which has the added benefit of reducing emissions from power generation.
“Smart grid technologies include sensors that allow operators to assess grid stability and provide consumers with better information about outages.
“Hardening the grid refers to measures that fortify the system against damage. Examples include tree trimming along power lines, replacing wooden electrical poles with steel or concrete, and burying overhead transmission lines.
“Bidirectional charging is not yet a standard feature for most electric vehicles, but manufacturers are exploring capabilities that would allow vehicles to power homes during blackouts and serve as an energy storage resource for the grid.
“Incentives can further encourage customers to cut back on usage during peak times.”
“You have sources of power closer to where that power is needed. That brings additional resiliency,” Lewin said.
The February 2021 winter storm pushed Texas lawmakers and regulators to make changes with how the electricity market is managed in Texas.
In Phase I of market reform, the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) mandated winter weatherization and changed how much we would pay for power in an emergency.
Under the current Phase II of the market reform, regulators want companies to build more infrastructure and better utilize options we have now.
“I don't think we're getting there fast enough. I do think that the state has taken some big steps,” Lewin said.
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Department of Energy records show 11 weather-related events since the February 2021 winter storm. Nine showed outages. The two others were due to the public appeal to conserve and involved no large outages.
That federal information has not been updated since last February 2022.
The DOE shows other threats to our power grid. From January 2021 through February 2022, records show four “cyber events.” One cyber event happened on Jan. 18, 2022, at 10:22 p.m.
“Cyber Security Incident that was an attempt to compromise a High or Medium Impact Bulk Electric System Cyber System or their associated Electronic Access Control or Monitoring Systems,” the alert criteria shows.
No one lost power.
The DOE reports a Feb. 22, 2022, suspicious activity that could have caused damage. It did not list details.
“Physical threat to its Facility excluding weather or natural disaster related threats, which has the potential to degrade the normal operation of the Facility. Or suspicious device or activity at its Facility,” the alert criteria shows.
Vandals damaged a facility in Mitchell County on Feb. 28, 2022. The alert criteria only shows, “Damage or destruction of its Facility that results from actual or suspected intentional human action.”
In most cyber events, no one lost power. Only one event, June 2021, showed an “unknown” number of customers affected.
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