The unfolding disaster in Texas has all the makings of another Katrina, in that an initial trigger event has led to a cascading systems collapse across interconnected systems.
The trigger was the winter storm of epic proportions that has swept across great swathes of the continental United States. The tinder was the apparently dire state of the Texas power grid… and the flames are a cascading systems failure that has crashed the electricity supply for millions…. leaving residents without water, heating, cooking (and thus food), lights, internet… all the wide variety of essentials goods that come courtesy of the little magic powerpoint.
No, not that PowerPoint… this one:
Twitter is where old falsehoods go to never die…
What is entirely predictable, and so terribly boring, is the way this has become fodder for the interminable Culture Wars both in the US and here in Australia with entirely predictable nonsense from the entirely predictable chorus.
Click here for a full rundown of the current predictable nonsense swirling around the image above from 2015 – taken entirely out of context (ie it’s in Sweden; it’s a de-icing test ; it’s not during a storm; etc…) and predictably pushed on Twitter (sorry, no links for the trolls) to support the entirely predictable claim that this was caused by renewables.
I know – so predictable.
While the Texas grid does have wind turbines as part of its generation mix, and the percentage is growing quickly, the majority of power generation comes through natural gas.
Because, you know, it’s Texas.
Here are the stats:
Wind power has been the fastest-growing source of energy in Texas’ power grid. In 2015, wind power generation supplied 11% of Texas’ energy grid. Last year it supplied 23% of the system’s power, surpassing coal as the second-largest source of energy.
But natural gas still leads the way in the state. An ERCOT report on generating capacity listed the top sources of power in the state:
Natural gas (51%)
Hydro, biomass-fired units (1.9%)
Natural gas also powers home stoves and gas heaters… and the gas infrastructure has frozen solid because they were unprepared for what was coming.
Promised maintenance was never undertaken; upgrades were never implemented.
But while the Culture War frame is entirely predictable, what is much more interesting (in terms of a systems approach to this event) is the way that the managers of the Texas energy grid appear to have entirely misjudged the working parameters of the grid in the event of a serious polar vortex occurrence.
It is only the preliminary one, but worthy of note is one of the last sentences on the last page that states that they did model more extreme scenarios, but:
The variation in these parameters is based on historic ranges of the parameter values or known changes expected in the near-term.
Yep – based on historical precedent. And yes, ‘past performance is no guarantee of future earnings’…
But surely they could see what was coming the closer it got?
Well, no, not really. The head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) (the private entity responsible for managing Texas’ power grid) stated five days before this all unfolded that ‘We’re ready for the frigid temps to come our way’.
Now, to be fair, in a complex system it can be very hard to predict future events – just ask any climate scientist.
But the difficulty is immensely increased when the base parameters of the system you are attempting to predict (ie weather) is itself shifting – and the primary point of climate change is that the parameters of the system ARE shifting.
This is why it can feel as though ‘Once in a hundred year fires / floods / storms’ are happening every few years… the parameters of the system are shifting, and what was once a ‘Once in a hundred year event’ is simply not any more.
And the lesson is simple: if you don’t believe that the overall parameters of the climate are shifting, then you are going to be perpetually surprised at events that don’t fit the precedents set by historical memory.
‘No one could have predicted this…’
‘I’ve never experienced anything like this before…’
‘We have seen nothing like this‘
That last quote? It’s from the head of ERCOT in an interview after the power had already gone out…
The final word
An article in the Washington Post (original article paywalled) by a Texas resident explains this institutional failing perfectly:
Ultimately, this outage, like many of the biggest blackouts before it, reflects the challenge of unanticipated events and consequences. In 1965, power system experts felt sure they had built in enough redundancy to prevent any cascading power failure from ever happening. But they did not envision the way dozens of different operators would respond when one relay setting caused unexpected power movement across the networks. In Texas, we know that our summers will be exceedingly hot, pushing our power system to the limit, but the last time it was this cold was in 1989, and this year’s winter storms will last longer. Our wind turbines do not have the cold protection that turbines do in the cold north. Our overall system is not winterized. The conditions of this cold front and its effects on the power system were simply beyond what power experts generally planned for.
And the systemic failure has been complete: in the words of the Governor of Texas ‘Every source of power has been compromised’.
Governor Abbot has pithily provided the very definition of a complete systems collapse of the entire energy supply network in Texas.
Once again it is the tension between Redundancy and Efficiency that sits at the heart of any question of system resilience or collapse – building redundancy into a system (ie back up systems or other alternatives) is inefficient because it costs money to have excess capacity ‘just sitting there’ in the event of some ‘completely unexpected’ Black Swan incident occuring.
We still persist on using a ‘just-in-time’ approach (without the diversity of supply which promotes resilience) to the energy that allows our complex systems to maintain themselves:
One of the big lessons here is gas is treated as a firm resource, but it is not because it relies on just-in-time delivery,” said Alex Gilbert, a fellow who studies energy systems at the Colorado School of Mines’ Payne Institute for Public Policy. “For me, looking at SPP and MISO south, there are other planning reasons involved, but they have a more diversified mix and that is definitely helping them.
The question is: when will such collapses be seen as entirely predictable?