Why did the Texas electric grid crash? — Quartz
Why did the Texas power grid crash after a winter storm that would have been inconspicuous a few hundred miles north? The answer, for the most part, is a lack of planning. The grid operators were surprised by the unusual weather and hadn’t invested in protective technologies (e.g. blade warmers for wind turbines) that keep the grid running all winter in cold locations.
But there’s also a systemic factor: in Texas, three out of five households use electric heating, one of the highest rates in the country. That is, as temperatures drop, electricity consumption increases, while homes in colder regions of the United States are more likely to be heated by traditional gas or oil combustion systems. For example, the Minneapolis grid is both better insulated from the cold in general and less likely to experience a sudden surge in demand during a cold spell.
There is an important lesson here for adapting to climate change. Residential buildings cause about 6% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US (pdf) thanks to the fossil fuels that are burned by running radiators, water heaters and stoves. According to city planners, in order to reduce these emissions, every house should at some point be fully electric. When an electrified home is plugged into an electrical grid that is increasingly powered by wind, sun and other carbon-free sources, it is less polluting. Long-term use of electrical systems is also cheaper than long-term use of gas in most parts of the country, especially when built into a new home rather than retrofitted, according to a 2018 study by the Rocky Mountain Institute.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the number of US households with electric heating will increase from 30% in 2005 to 36% in 2015 (more recent survey data are due to be published this year).
What does all this mean for the grid? In short, more work. Electric heating systems generally use more electricity than air conditioners. So if every home were electrified, most grids would have peak demand in winter rather than summer. This could lead to future blackouts if network operators don’t plan accordingly. A 2019 analysis by an Austin, Texas-based energy research firm found that converting all households in the state to electric heat would increase peak winter electricity needs by 23% to levels well above this week’s blackout caused.
This problem is easy to solve as long as network operators are prepared. The crisis in Texas this week has worsened as many natural gas facilities there are routinely offline for maintenance over the winter. In a world with electrical heat and extreme weather fluctuations caused by the climate, this schedule has to be adjusted – and more sources for electricity generation and storage are needed across the board.