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Lessons Learned from the 2021 Texas Blackout, Implications for Ohio, and Paths Forward for Emergency Management and Disaster Planning

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Gilbert Michaud's picture
Assistant Professor Loyola University Chicago

Gilbert Michaud, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy at the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. Michaud’s research portfolio broadly focuses on...

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  • May 26, 2021 5:43 am GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-05 - Grid Modernization, click here for more

Michael J. Zimmer, Gilbert Michaud, & David Jenkins 

In February of 2021, an extreme winter storm, dubbed as “Winter Storm Uri,” left millions of Texans without power for days, resulting in at least 70 deaths.  While Texas Governor Greg Abbott was quick to turn this crisis into a strife with renewable energy, blaming it on an over-reliance on wind energy, other leaders in the state, such as Senator Ted Cruz, thought it was more productive to flee to Mexico.  Despite these narratives and challenges, it is clear that reduced output from all generation sources in Texas resulted in the blackout, while the continued use of misinformation, as well as the general lack of leadership, proved to exacerbate the crisis.           

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The main and likely contributor to the Texas blackouts of 2021 was, simply stated, a lack of preparedness.  This is not the first time that winter weather has destabilized Texas’ grid.  In both 1989 and 2011, winter storms took down several power plants and left Texans without power.  Recommendations were made by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to winterize Texas’s infrastructure; however, those recommendations were largely ignored by Texas’ Governor, Legislature, and regulatory commissions in pursuit of profits, a false sense of independence, and political gain.  With extreme weather becoming more likely across the globe given the climate crisis, the question arises of whether blackouts like the one we saw in Texas are possible in other states.

In the case of Ohio, the answer is: less likely.  Ohio’s major electric utilities are part of PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization (RTO) that manages grid reliability under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  PJM manages wholesale electricity markets in 13 different states, including Ohio, as well as other states in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.  Since PJM’s territory crosses several state boundaries, it is subject to regulation from FERC, which includes preparedness stipulations for extreme weather.  Further, electric utilities within PJM are financially encouraged to have a generational capacity higher than demand to account for spikes in energy consumption.  Conversely, Texas’ electric grid is largely separate from the rest of the nation (i.e., not crossing state boundaries like PJM), and is, thus, in true secessionist spirit, able to evade federal regulation from FERC.  In particular, Texas’ grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) and the Texas statehouse.  ERCOT does not contain any market for standby power, like PJM does, and due to its isolation, is unable to rely on generation from neighboring states in times of crisis, like PJM states can.

In the wake of the 2021 Texas disaster, the scapegoating and finger pointing has been out in full force, with several lawsuits and legislative investigations pending.  First, five ERCOT board members, who do not even reside in Texas, have resigned.  This was followed by the resignation of the PUCT chair DeAnn Walker.  After, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness was fired by the remaining ERCOT board members.  Regardless of whom the blame is ultimately passed to, it is clear that the true criticism lies with a systemic and ongoing lack of leadership for over in a decade in Texas.  For years, electricity grid reliability has been put on the back burner in the state in favor of building political support and profit seeking, with declining levels of reliability, resilience, and consumer protection.

This challenge of reliability, resilience, and regulatory market failure in Texas emerges from the litany of tragic weather and climate disasters that have plagued the U.S. for decades, including super storms such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Midwest derecho, continued California wildfires, and many others.  What are the critical lessons that we can learn from the 2021 Texas case study, as we synthesize implications and develop better paths forward for electricity regulation, planning, and emergency management?  Below, we present a suite of relevant observations to this question, as grounded in prior research and first-hand observations.

  • As of 2021, there are now over 300 active legislative bills across the U.S. (at the state level) related to resiliency and electricity.  However, the State of Ohio has only introduced four such bills.  Reliability, resilience, and fuel coordination have not risen to the attention level of grid modernization and market failures in the state, such as House Bill (HB) 6.
  • The recent Texas winter storm actually showed that solar and storage delivered.  This is contrary to Governor Abbott’s ignoring of the major market failures of the natural gas production, supply, and delivery system in Texas.  While normally hovering around 20%, by March of 2021, renewables (primarily wind) were providing 45% of Texas’ total generation capacity, helping with emergency response efforts.   
  • These electric power system experiences are showing a need to shift from energy efficiency and demand-side management programs concentrated on summer peak demand. Increasingly, we need to also address winter peak conditions.  There is an opportunity for better use of demand reduction and load anagement than we have seen to date in the U.S.  
  • Establishing a set of resilience metrics, as well as building conservation around these metrics, has not been done since 2017 by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  This, in turn, has failed to leverage the national laboratories’ energy grid resilience and technologies research work for further deployment into states.
  • In the Texas case study, there was a continued lack of coordination among key players, and across different generation assets.  A centralized regulatory presence and emergency planning in Texas, as well as other U.S. states, for electricity, water, and broadband, with better staffing, data analytics, and cooperative coordination, would foster better outcomes and better customer protection.
  • There exists a deeper failure to weatherize generation assets, and not just winterize them as part of broader energy infrastructure planning.  Failure to plan for climate extremes is costly, and every one dollar spent for energy resilience and disaster mitigation saves four dollars in costs later.
  • There is an increasing failure of no capacity markets to pay electricity generating plants to be available.  Market design needs to accommodate capacity in Texas (and nationwide) with affordability, and not merely predatory pricing.  Market design, which is set on short run pricing, is not meeting any public obligation to serve, and only weakens confidence and trust in government and infrastructure, while failing stakeholders.
  • There is a continuing failure to better integrate and factor in account reliability.  This also includes communications links, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), and backup for communications in the absence of power and cell towers.
  • Opportunities to link with other electric grids and power pools for reliability through coordinated operations have been ignored for decades in Texas.  Some states have separations of functions that are no longer sustainable under current operating and technology conditions as these weather crises escalate.
  • These weather crises display the consequences of a governmental failure to communicate honestly with the citizenry.  Social media and, more broadly, the internet, have proven to be a source of misinformation, threatening proper communication in a catastrophe.  This necessitates more sophisticated emergency planning considerations, and communication, especially with regard to power outages.
  • Reliance upon unfettered market forces has compromised electric-related reliability and resilience, and has led to lower reserves and higher reliability risks over the past decade.  Reviews need to be undertaken by FERC and NERC with new guidance to the states regarding regulatory best practices for electricity markets and emergency preparedness.
  • Insurance unfortunately only covers a small percentage of casualty losses in these emergency circumstances.  As weather crises continue to escalate, these costs are borne by citizens, state, or federal governments as a form of a hidden tax.  The collective costs over the past decade for these continued market failures in the energy and electricity realm exceeds trillions of dollars, cumulatively.
  • These continued extreme weather events in Texas (and other U.S. states) over the past few decades illustrate the need to conduct more simulations to build responder capacity and practical experience.  Actual drills in anticipation of likely events offer a better path toward preparation compared to reports and written plans.
  • There is an increased need for uniformity in building codes for harbor regions, wildfire zones, earthquake areas, and stormwater discharge geographies, among others.  There is a need for the wider adoption of American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) standards for future design and infrastructure needs, particularly in coastal areas increasingly facing sea level rise.
  • New land management tools are required in dangerous zones for land redevelopment, such as seen with conservation easements.  Infrastructure modifications could include electric grid modernization, conversion of lower basements and parking in buildings, and the termination of vulnerable development, such as housing on waterfront park properties.
  • Weather-induced catastrophes need more mobile response tools to provide health services, water, food, cleaning supplies, and mental health support.  Increases in public health budgets at the state level are also needed to ensure adequate staffing, as well as response training in advance of disasters.

While this list of lessons learned is not necessarily intended to be comprehensive, it does provide potential paths forward as states continue to plan for the weather and electricity related emergencies of the future.  Practitioners and other stakeholders can use these ideas to refine relevant, existing policy proposals, as well as offer new ones, to responsibly address these challenges.  As the U.S. continues to see an unfolding transition of its generation assets and energy systems, a fundamental modernization and expansion of the electric grid remains necessary, spurring new changes and challenges across the country.  The implementation of upgrades to accommodate new technologies, as well as to better accommodate for future disasters, will require a vast and sustained investment of financial resources to upgrade our infrastructure with resilience in mind.  Undertaking this with equity and inclusion in mind is also an important goal of energy infrastructure and resilience efforts.  Ultimately, we need to learn from past mistakes and implement smarter, innovative electricity and disaster planning, as we seek to enhance living standards for all in the face of the climate crisis and related environmental problems.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 26, 2021

As of 2021, there are now over 300 active legislative bills across the U.S. (at the state level) related to resiliency and electricity.  However, the State of Ohio has only introduced four such bills.  Reliability, resilience, and fuel coordination have not risen to the attention level of grid modernization and market failures in the state, such as House Bill (HB) 6.

Ohio having 4 would then only be slightly below the average of 6 per state-- but as you know bills are one thing, but it's whether or not they become laws. How do you see the Ohio landscape for potentially adopting modernization in this regard compared with other states-- particularly Ohio's neighbors? 

Gilbert Michaud's picture
Gilbert Michaud on May 30, 2021

I see it as fundamentally more challenging, compared to Ohio's peers, given the back-and-forth energy policy in the state over the past 5-10 years.  Changes at the PUC will help, but the legislature is still a barrier (see the SB 52 / HB 118 fights ongoing as we speak).  PowerForward was the state's grid mod plan a few years ago, but it didn't really do much.

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