Nature is a cruel mistress and is crueller still when stung by climate change. That was nowhere near as evident as in Texas last week, where record-low temperatures and crippling snowstorms crashed the state’s power grid, plunging millions into the cold darkness for days on end.
To say that Texas – much like Athens and Istanbul, also covered in snow last week – has not been accustomed to extreme winter weather would be an understatement. To say its power infrastructure should have been ready to deal with these harsh weather events – made more frequent by climate change, scientists say – is not.
One of the most depressing (if entirely predictable) spectacles last week was to see certain politicians and interest groups try to lay the blame squarely at the foot of Texas’s clean energy industry. Yes, inadequately winterised wind turbines in the Lone Star state did freeze last week. Data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas showed 18GW of renewable energy was offline last Wednesday. But so was 28GW of thermal power – much of it coming from natural gas, partly because pipelines lacking cold insulation froze – and some nuclear.
Adequately winterised wind turbines spin to their heart’s content in snowy Sweden and Finland. But a lack of investment in resilient infrastructure is an equal opportunities mischief maker, striking down fossil fuel and clean energy assets alike. That is one of the chief lessons from the Texas debacle – one infrastructure investors, many active in managing Texas’s power infrastructure, need to take to heart.
The other lesson to learn from the events of last week is the need for adequate reserve power. It is true that Texas operates the only major US grid without a capacity power market. In that sense, you could argue it was particularly vulnerable to the kind of extreme event that hit it last week. Yet even when those incentives exist, they do not necessarily guarantee a good outcome.
When lightning strikes plunged the UK into chaos in the summer of 2019, causing widespread travel disruption thanks to the loss of 1.9GW of capacity, operator National Grid used all the backup power and tools it had available, which totalled 1GW and included 472MW of battery storage. As we wrote at the time, though, “Britain was without power in part because it did not have enough of it in reserve”.
In a way, all roads lead to resiliency. For what is adequate reserve power if not readiness for a world where increased climate events will force you to use it? Like it or not, that is the world we live in in 2021. And in that world, climate change preparedness, in all its forms, is not insurance for tomorrow – it is a key requirement of today.