The Texas blackout is another reminder that more frequent, climate-driven extreme weather puts stress on the country’s electricity grid. It came just months after outages in California aimed at preventing wildfires.
Compounding this, electricity likely will be even more important in coming years amid a push to electrify cars and homes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That has many grid experts saying it’s time to upgrade the country’s electricity infrastructure.
That includes wires, power plants, big transmission towers and local utilities – everything that gets electricity to you. And much of that infrastructure was designed for a different era.
“We planned this grid for Ozzie and Harriet weather and we are now facing Mad Max,” says energy consultant Alison Silverstein.
The pop culture references are her way of saying that the grid was designed for technology and weather that existed in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Now, she says, it needs to be updated for a future that includes climate change.
“Everybody has always designed these systems looking in the rear-view mirror,” says Silverstein.
That made sense at the time. Planners would identify the worst-case weather scenario from the past and make sure they could handle that in the future. But climate change is delivering weather that hasn’t been experienced before.
The number of weather disasters with losses over a billion dollars is increasing, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. And the group Climate Central says that since 2000 there’s been a 67 percent increase in major power outages from weather and climate related events.
Each region has its own vulnerabilities. Take the Pacific Northwest and its massive hydro-power dams, for example.
“Not only do we need to be worried about the cold weather events like you saw in Texas, and the hot weather events like in California,” says Ben Kujala, director of power planning Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The group recently changed planning models to also better prepare for how climate change alters when water flows through the dams.
Warming temperatures make it likely that mountain snowpack will melt earlier in the year, he says. So instead of a lot of water running into reservoirs during the spring, that’s more likely to happen in winter.
“And it might be that by summer, you’re pretty much through all the snowpack – you’ve melted everything off,” says Kujala. That leaves less water to run through the power-generating dams just as more people will be cranking up their air conditioners.
Grid experts also generally agree the country needs to build more transmission lines to get electricity from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. That makes it possible to add cleaner sources of power, like wind turbines, solar projects and batteries to store energy. That will be key to meet the Biden administration goal of net-zero carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035.
“In the world of building transmission, it’s really not that far off when you think you need a good ten-year lead time in order to get there,” says Larry Gasteiger, executive director WIRES, a trade group advocating for more high-voltage transmission lines.
He says all that new transmission infrastructure comes with a steep price tag. “Our study said up to 90 billion dollars of investment by 2030, maybe as much as a 600 billion in investment by 2050.”
Gasteiger suspects the Texas blackout will encourage policy-makers to move on this issue soon. White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said last week that the Texas outages show how unprepared the country is for climate change.
As expensive as upgrading the country’s electricity grid sounds, the Texas experience shows there’s also a cost to not preparing for more extreme weather, both in dollars and in lives.