Cyrus Whittaker (left) and Debbie Orca sit around a fire in the homeless camp where they live during record breaking cold and snow in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on February 16, 2021.
Nick Oxford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
The major winter storm that swept the south this week, turning off electricity to more than 3 million people in Texas, has raised concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s electricity grid to extreme weather events made worse by climate change.
In the coming days, there is likely to be more winter weather in the southern and eastern US. Utilities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Southeast Texas have imposed blackouts to ease pressure on overloaded power systems and to meet high demands for heat and power in cold conditions.
The storm’s major failures suggest a major crisis: Climate change is leading to more frequent and more destructive hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and other disasters that overwhelm existing infrastructure across the country.
According to an analysis of national blackout data by the Climate Central research group, extreme weather events have caused 67% more blackouts in the US since 2000.
People shop at Fiesta Supermarket in Houston, Texas on February 16, 2021. Winter storm Uri has historically brought cold weather, power outages, and traffic accidents to Texas as storms with a mixture of freezing temperatures and precipitation swept across 26 states.
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In the western United States, record-breaking forest fires caused by dry and hot conditions have also resulted in blackouts as demand for air conditioning increased and the power grid pushed beyond its limits. And in Michigan, two aging dams collapsed last year, causing catastrophic flooding after heavy rainfall.
“We need to better plan for the increased variability we expect from climate change,” said Michael Craig, professor in the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. “States and system planners and regulators need to make sure they consider what the weather will be like in the future.”
Although global temperatures are rising due to fossil fuel burning, more scientific evidence is finding that the nature of the extreme cold event in the US this week is related to rapid warming in the Arctic.
Disturbances in the polar vortex, a low pressure area of cold air found in polar regions, then send cold air from the Arctic to parts of North America, Europe and Asia.
As a result, according to PowerOutage.us, tens of thousands of people in Oregon, Kentucky, West Virginia and Louisiana were without electricity on Wednesday morning and struggled without heat and electricity in the cold and in some cases dangerous conditions.
Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez are staying at their home during a power outage due to the winter storm on February 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas.
Go Nakamura | Getty Images
In Texas, which has the worst outages, electricity prices rose as demand for electricity increased. The increased demand for electricity and heat overwhelmed the state’s power grid, with outages in natural gas, coal, and nuclear systems responsible for most of the outages, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
Emily Grubert, an engineer and professor at Georgia Tech, said more extreme weather events will continue to cause power grids to outperform their design capabilities, and that states need to prepare for system failures.
“Centering people’s safety in planning, rather than just focusing on keeping the web online under different planning conditions, is probably critical to making sure we are optimizing the right things when faced with extreme emergency conditions,” said Grubert.
Residents of East Austin push a car out of the snow in Austin, Texas on February 15, 2021.
Montinique Monroe | Getty Images
“Considerations like building insulation, community contingency plans and making sure there are safe and resilient places for people can protect against different types of failure,” added Grubert.
The widespread outages have led some US lawmakers to call for hearings on grid outages and an investigation by ERCOT, which operates 75% of Texas’ electricity grid.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order reviewing reforms to the administration and rails of the power grid against ERCOT. The energy supplier was “anything but reliable in the last 48 hours”.
“We know that millions of people suffer,” said ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness in a statement on Wednesday. “We have no other priority than providing them with electricity. No other priority.”
Vice President Kamala Harris also addressed the failures in an interview on NBC’s Today Show on Wednesday.
“I know they can’t see us right now because they don’t have electricity, but the President and I are thinking of them and really hope we can do whatever we can by signing the emergency orders to get federal aid they, “said Harris.