As a record-breaking winter storm left millions without power in Texas, USC experts raised concerns about the dependability of the U.S. power grid as extreme weather conditions linked to climate change are expected to continue and worsen. They said the failure of Texas’ power grid during a statewide crisis signals a warning to other states, including California.
USC Environmental Studies Professor Victoria Petryshyn told Annenberg Media that the energy grid is failing Texans partially because the state’s electric grid is disconnected from the rest of the country and deregulated in order to keep energy prices low. She said the result is that prices “skyrocket” in emergency situations like the one Texas is in, where the supply of electricity is unable to meet the demand of the consumers.
“Where they’re missing the biggest chunk of their electricity is from the frozen natural gas lines, frozen coal plants and nuclear plants,” said Petryshyn. She refuted some Texas Republicans’ debunked statements claiming that renewable energy sources, particularly wind turbines, were responsible for the power outages.
“[Texas] ignored all of the climate change evidence to suggest that they were going to need to winterize their wind turbines,” Petryshyn said. Even with frozen wind turbines, Petryshyn said renewable energy was responding to the crisis in Texas far faster and more effectively than fossil fuels. “People who are getting reconnected to power are doing so because of solar and wind over-performing. That’s the thing coming to the rescue.”
Dr. Hao Zhu, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in electric power systems, told Annenberg Media in an interview that when the Texas power plants were built, they were not fitted for this extreme cold weather.
“This frequent occurrence of extreme weather conditions should be accounted for in the planning of the electric power systems in Texas, as in many other areas of the country,” said Zhu. “We have to think about ways to better design and harden our infrastructure to withstand these extreme events.”
Unlike much of the rest of the contiguous United States, Texas is disconnected from the Eastern and Western Interconnected grids. This makes it impossible to connect to other states’ power when Texas grids shut down.
“In general, interconnection has pros and cons,” said Zhu. According to Zhu, one positive is that when an interconnected energy grid experiences “a shortage of electricity, it can quickly ask for help from other areas so the electricity can flow freely from places that have abundant generation.”
Though Zhu said the situation in Texas is worsened by the state’s disconnected grid, she said there can also be problems with the large, interconnected grids like the one containing California. She said when larger grids face problems, they are “prone to cascading failures. If there is a failure in one area, it can also trigger failures in other areas.”
Petryshyn said Southern California has seen examples of this in the past, though due to different weather events than those causing problems in Texas.
“That’s actually why they will cut our power, due to rolling blackouts in Northern California during high wind events,” said Petryshyn. “We have these same problems, just maybe wind is going to cause it instead of ice.”
On Feb. 16, two apartment complexes near USC’s main campus went dark after high winds swept through the area. According to university-wide alerts issued by the Department of Public Safety, the Lorenzo apartments and West 27th Street apartments went without power for multiple hours on Feb. 16 and 17, forcing students to adapt.
Rohan Varghese, a USC sophomore studying business, said the power outage was not a big deal at first. But a lack of access to cell service made it hard to complete schoolwork.
“Usually when my power is out at home, I can just turn on my hotspot and continue doing work,” said Varghese. “However, when I looked at my phone and saw I had no service, things became a lot of more difficult. We ended up going to a friend’s apartment to study thanks to a Lyft ride that we weren’t sure was going to even show up due to the poor cell service.”
From the relatively minor examples, like Varghese’s experience, to the more widespread disruption seen in Texas, Petryshyn said California’s “aging infrastructure” will be tested by future weather events.
“Our grid is just outdated and it’s not prepared for what’s coming,” said Petryshyn.
Los Angeles plans to convert to a 100% renewable energy grid by 2045 in hopes of curbing the effects of climate change that Petryshyn and Zhu said threaten the country’s energy infrastructure. Though the price of the city’s Green New Deal has raised concerns from some, Petryshyn said investment now would save the United States more money in the long run.
“We’re already paying so much money for climate change,” said Petryshyn. “Cost of natural disasters is billions and billions of dollars. And it defies belief that we would not want to stop that. But humans are very near term thinkers.”