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Widespread Blackouts In Texas Fuel Federal Debate On Grid Investments

February 17, 2021

The widespread electricity blackouts in Texas caused by a recent burst of cold weather are spurring a federal debate about the need for increased grid investments to address future climate risks, with some arguing the event gives the Biden administration support for including major grid measures in its forthcoming infrastructure proposal.

"It’s time for Congress to pass an ambitious infrastructure initiative aimed at expanding and upgrading America’s grid," said Greg Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), in a Feb. 16 statement on the Texas blackouts.

“With an advanced grid that better connects balkanized regional systems, we can prevent dangerous, widespread power outages from becoming the new normal, better harness our nation’s abundant renewable resources, and meet our climate objectives,” he added.

Wetstone noted that other regions have kept lights on during severe winter weather, in part because they could import significant amounts of power from areas with milder weather. However, the main grid in Texas is largely walled off from the rest of the country, meaning power imports are limited.

“Building out more high-capacity inter-regional lines is an essential part of the effort to ensure grid reliability in an era of climate change.”

Melanie Kenderdine, a former Obama Department of Energy official now with the Energy Futures Initiative, told Politico that officials “need to think about undergrounding key critical electricity infrastructure. Expensive? Yes, but so was the entire state of Texas shutting down.”

At the height of the power crisis, over 4 million customers in Texas were without power, prompting early debates about the root causes of the event in which conservatives sought to pin the blame on wind power.

Texas Power Blackouts Prompt Finger-Pointing At Wind Power

The massive power blackout that has left over 4 million customers without electricity in Texas is prompting new criticisms of wind electricity as the state’s primary grid buckled under a historic cold spell that has boosted demand for both natural gas and power, just as significant numbers of generators were offline.

But information from the state’s primary grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), showed disruptions among all types of power generation, with natural gas-fired plants emerging as a primary source of supply issues.

Gas Seen As Primary Source Of Power Supply Loss In Texas Blackouts

Texas grid operators have been careful to say that power generators of all fuel types have failed as the state continues to suffer widespread blackouts that have left millions without power amid a bitter cold snap -- though natural gas-fired generation is emerging as a primary source of supply loss.

“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, according to the Texas Tribune. While all energy sources share blame for the power crisis, he said gas plants are producing significantly less power than normal.

“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Webber added.

ERCOT said about 45 gigawatts (GW) of capacity was knocked offline, or about half of the Lone Star State’s winter capacity. Of that, about 30 GW were from “thermal” sources, including gas, coal and nuclear power. The remainder was renewable capacity, largely wind facilities that were not designed with winterization measures to prevent ice from forming on turbines.

“It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system,” said ERCOT senior director Dan Woodfin during a Feb. 16 press call.

The bitter temperatures have frozen various instruments at gas, coal and nuclear plants, while gas supplies have also tightened as natural gas utilities often have priority to provide the fuel for home heating rather than power generation.

Federal energy regulators have also launched an investigation into the causes of the Texas blackouts.

FERC Launches Inquiry Of Texas Blackout Amid Fight Over Renewables

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and electric grid regulators have launched a joint investigation into the Texas power blackouts, which have prompted charges from GOP lawmakers that the Biden administration’s push for increased renewable generation and limits on fossil fuel production is undermining grid reliability.

FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) announced Feb. 16 “they will open a joint inquiry into the operations of the bulk-power system during the extreme winter weather conditions currently being experienced by the Midwest and South central states.”

The investigation will focus on “restoring power to customers and securing the reliability of the bulk-power system,” according to the statement.

News of the inquiry prompted clean energy backers to push back against criticisms of wind power from fossil fuel supporters.

“It is disgraceful to see the longtime antagonists of clean power -- who attack it whether it is raining, snowing, or the sun is shining -- engaging in a politically opportunistic charade misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities,” Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, said in a statement.

In addition to bolstering inter-regional transmission and undergrounding power lines, some observers have suggested the need for utilities in Texas to consider winterization measures that would allow generators -- including both wind facilities and gas plants -- to operate during bitter cold snaps.

Yet such measures can be pricey. “It’s essentially a question of how much insurance you want to buy,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University, according to the New York Times.

President Joe Biden is poised to unveil the outlines of a sweeping infrastructure investment package in the coming weeks, though the White House on Feb. 16 denied prior rumors that he was set to give a Feb. 23 address to a joint session of Congress.

Biden’s infrastructure plan has long been expected to include significant clean energy elements, including grid upgrades. However, the Texas cold snap could give administration officials additional arguments to press for a suite of measures that can boost the resilience of the grid to extreme weather, while also accommodating significantly higher levels of renewable power.

Yet, the administration could encounter resistance to its push for new transmission from environmental groups that are otherwise allied with its ambitious climate change agenda, even when such facilities are intended to transport low- and zero-carbon power.

Groups Seek Rigorous Grid Reviews, Undercutting Biden’s Climate Goals

Some environmental groups are vowing to seek rigorous National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental reviews of planned transmission lines, even when they are built to facilitate low- or zero-carbon power, a strategy that may frustrate the Biden administration’s effort to accelerate reviews for such projects.

In one high-profile example, environmental groups won a temporary block of construction for a 145-mile high-voltage transmission line to bring Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts.

Under Biden’s Jan. 27 climate executive order, White House officials are required to “identify steps that can be taken, consistent with applicable law, to accelerate the deployment of clean energy and transmission projects in an environmentally stable manner.”

NEPA experts say the administration has existing authority to prioritize reviews for desirable projects, just as the Trump administration prioritized reviews for fossil energy projects it supported.

But environmentalists say they will continue to closely scrutinize a crucial component of the clean energy infrastructure Biden supports -- transmission lines that are necessary to bring large amounts of renewable electricity to the grid and often run through pristine, undeveloped areas.

One source familiar with the Maine litigation notes there is stiff opposition to importing hydropower from massive new dams in Canada even as domestic policymakers move to close hydro dams because of their harmful impacts.

For example, a new framework bill from Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) would shut four dams in eastern Washington to address salmon concerns in the Pacific Northwest.

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