Freezing temperatures in Texas in February 2021 caused its power grid to fail dramatically. Millions of Texans were without power amid freezing temperatures.
A combination of factors caused the energy grid to collapse.
- First, Texas, energy infrastructure is not “winterized” because of the states humid climate and mild winters. The extreme cold is a very unusual event for the state and could happen once in 10 or 50 years.
- Second, consumers’ soaring demands for electricity to keep warm surged beyond what the states power plants can provide.
- Third, Texas’ grid is isolated from all other neighbouring states because it avoided federal regulatory oversight and has since been “islanded”. This decision came at a cost, one that needs to be revisited.
Some government officials blame the blackouts on renewable failures pointing to the ice-covered wind turbines and solar projects, which is not entirely true. Wind and solar power contribute 30% of the state’s total power source, and in the winter months, wind generates 10% of the power.
The majority of Texas’ electricity is generated from natural gas. Frozen gas wells and low pressure in pipelines created a supply shortage and the cause of the state’s widespread blackouts.
Considering the massive failure of the Texas mega-grid and its impacts on its people, perhaps its time for Texas look at other power grid options – one that provides more flexibility, lower costs, and more climate-resilient.
An article from The Conversation discusses the benefits of microgrids as a more resilient energy infrastructure alternative.
Macrogrids Vs. Microgrids
Mega grid infrastructure like the one Texas has at the money is expensive and costly to maintain. Citing a study by the US Department of Energy in 2015, it will cost utility companies US$2 trillion by 2030 to maintain current levels of service reliability.
Traditional grids, especially ones with longer distances between power plants and end-users, can produce large line losses up to 5% annually, exceeding the energy from gasoline used by vehicles.
Electrical grids are also vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks which can compromise sub-stations and powerplants.
Microgrids or smart grids can be an alternative solution when the expansion of grid infrastructure is required. It consists of a local network of generators with energy storage and an option to disconnect from the macro grid when necessary.
Other benefits of a microgrid or smart grid include – flexibility and reliability, inexpensive to build compared to a mega grid, microgrids can take advantage of the existing wiring in the area, can fit better with the needs of the community, can generate local employment, lower electricity price for consumers especially in low-income communities, and can benefit from local or regional energy sources, the article says.
Additionally, microgrids can tap power from electric vehicles and integrate vehicle-to-grid technology using EV batteries’ energy to reduce peak demands.
Challenges to Microgrids
According to the article, despite the many benefits that microgrids offer, there are still challenges to overcome before achieving widespread support.
Energy storage is still expensive. Although lithium ion-batteries had a significant drop in price from US$1200 kWh in 2010 to US$175 in 2019, it still needs to be at US$100 to be competitive.
Investors are quite reluctant to invest in microgrids because they lacked a long track record. However, this can be changing soon.
Some microgrid companies partner with investors to provide a hedge for companies who want long-term security for the price they pay for power.
There is also a need for legislation to provide regulatory frameworks and standardization for microgrids to ensure safe and reliable operation.
Climate change presents a growing threat to critical infrastructure. As seen in Texas, extreme climate conditions have shut down power, leading to dozens of deaths, while many face massive electric bills.
According to the article, these events, no matter how unfortunate, offer “the greatest opportunity for innovation, community development, and risk minimization.”
Infrastructure deployment continues to rapidly evolve as our societies innovate and change to meet the challenges of climate adaptation and technological innovation.
Our infrastructure management planning will also need to evolve to include integrated systems and networks of public, private, and micro-network assets that provide services to the community.
PHOTO CREDITS: For the photos used in the featured image, we would like to acknowledge the following:
- “Power grid” by Polaristest
- “Snow covering grounds of the Texas Capitol on February 15, 2021” by Jno.skinner – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100196949
- “Snow in the Northeast” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center