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Texas and California built different power grids, but neither stood up to climate change

by ERIC WOLFF, DEBRA KAHN and ZACK COLMAN 02/21/2021 07:00 AM EST | Story Source    Sunday February 21, 2021 - 7:13 AM
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* Texas Power Grid *
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An Oncor Electric Delivery crew works on restoring power to a neighborhood following the winter storm that passed through Texas. | Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP
Texas and California may be worlds apart in their politics and climate policies, but they have something in common: Extreme weather crashed their power grids and left people stranded in the dark.

The two sprawling, politically potent states have devoted massive sums to their power networks over the past two decades — California to produce huge amounts of wind and solar energy, Texas to create an efficient, go-it-alone electricity market built on gas, coal, nuclear and wind. But neither could keep the lights on in the face of the type of brutal weather that scientists call a taste of a changing climate.

That presents both an opportunity and a challenge for President Joe Biden, potentially aiding his efforts to draw support from lawmakers and states for his multitrillion-dollar proposals to harden the nation's energy infrastructure to withstand climate change. But he's already facing entrenched resistance to his pledges to shift the nation to renewable energy by 2035 — including from fossil fuel advocates who have sought to scapegoat wind and solar for the energy woes in both states.

The catastrophe this week in Texas left more than 4 million people in the dark and the cold, and even more without clean water, when a rare blast of Arctic air drove temperatures down, freezing both natural gas plants and wind turbines.

Texas "planned more for heatwaves than for ice storms," said Dan Reicher, who worked in the Clinton administration's Energy Department on renewable energy and is now at Stanford University. And the onus now is on figuring out how to prevent a repeat — a tricky situation given the independence of Texas' grid and sharp opposition from Republicans there to linking up to other states and giving federal regulators oversight of its power system.

So far, the Biden administration has shown little sign of pushing its agenda on Texas, which already leads the nation in wind power. But Congress is eyeing hearings to look at this week's power failures, which are likely to put a spotlight on the state's grid.

"How much and how far does the Biden administration want to dig into this from the broader federal perspective? And that remains to be seen," Reicher said.

Though scientists haven't definitively tied climate change to the polar vortex that sent temperatures plummeting this week, evidence is starting to show that years of rising temperatures in the Arctic may be playing a role in altering the path of the jet stream that fed the frigid winds into the southern states.

"The way I think about it is you're opening the door to the freezer," said Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University.

And while Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler said the link to climate change hadn't been settled, it's undeniable that climate change is fueling more "tail risk" events that were once considered rare. And both Texas and California, which suffered both a devastating heat wave and record wildfires last year, present important questions for how to safeguard critical infrastructure in a warmer world.

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