When Hurricane Katrina and the floods and other devastation the catastrophic storm wrought hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans and coastal Louisiana, I don’t remember a lot of jokes about the failing/aging infrastructure within the sliver on the river. The Army Corps of Engineers and others had known for years that any serious storm surge would overrun the levees surrounding the basin that is much of New Orleans and likely overwhelm its massive but aging pump and drainage system. And that, of course, and more happened.
Now another weather-created maelstrom has literally frozen much of the commonwealth of Texas for over a week. And though this frosting literally has hundreds of thousands of Texans turning a bit chilly and blue in their energy-free homes, the Red state is getting heaps of derision.
Yes, Texas is the energy capital of the United States. It produces more natural gas, oil, refined petroleum and related products as well as propane, methane and many other energy fuel sources, including sustainable sources, than most any two states (excluding California) combined. Texas is home to the U.S. Strategic Oil Reserves, but for those outside the energy industry, it is critical to know and remember that the structure, reliability and availability of the transmission infrastructure and grid are just as crucial as having steady access to fuel supplies.
And nowhere are supplies generally in more plentiful supply than the Lone Star State ... where among many mottos the thinking is typically Go Big or Go Home. Having many friends and some family relations in Texas, I have witnessed the state weathering its own share of flooding, hurricanes and tropical storms, taking lives and devastating billions in property values in Houston, Galveston and along the long Texas coastline. But Texans are more likely prepared for weathering extreme heat and droughts than they are prepared for sub-zero weather temps. Summer and sometimes even early fall temperatures in the mid-state and across the vast plains of Texas can hover well above 100 degrees for days at a time.
And as with Georgia’s Snowmaggedon of 2014, the state’s current infrastructure, transmission grid, new sustainable energy sources as well as the oldest and most reliable, were all impacted. Stockpiles of coal were frozen solid and could not be easily moved or broken up to re-fire coal-burning plants, which generate steam to power turbines to generate electricity. Natural gas, the state’s primary fuel source, was frozen in pipelines, which were also frozen solid with moisture inside and out, or liquified natural gas, which could not be sufficiently warmed and converted back into gas form. Once brown-outs become black-outs, re-booting and restarting these systems during extreme weather conditions are also quite challenging, with everything from frozen transmission lines and transformers to sub-stations being over-taxed and shorting out due to excess demand. Frozen windmill turbines can be de-iced, as well as operate in temperatures as low as Texas is experiencing, but that “weatherization” requires ongoing maintenance done routinely on the front end.
As Georgia now has stores of road salt and brine along our interstates, which also have to be maintained, and has invested dozens of millions in de-icing rolling stock, we are better prepared for the next major snow/ice storm. In Texas, which typically has had high energy reliability scores on its grid, independent from the rest of the nation’s to avoid federal energy policy regulation, a period of introspection and improvements to grid resilience will be first to come in the fall out as warm temperatures begin to thaw out the operating system.
Some of the improvements, such as weather-stripping wiring, transmission cables and grid transformers are inexpensive but time consuming. Some other system-wide enhancements could cost billions. Hopefully Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, former U.S. Energy Secretary and Gov. Rick Perry and others will see the benefits of not only accepting federal disaster designation and relief from the Biden Administration, but perhaps tying more than their outbound natural gas and oil pipelines to the rest of the U.S. energy delivery grid. That might have allowed for emergency power from surrounding states to be released onto the Texas grid and prevented those massive black-outs and hard home freezes from occurring.
Keeping the lights on is such a basic human need, in modern society it has become almost another layer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Wishing a rapid thaw and some hot Texas sunshine soon ... and perhaps some warming of minds toward joining the rest of the U.S. energy distribution system and networks in the not too distant future.