It could only be described as the perfect storm. In February 2021, a weather system originating in the Pacific Northwest crossed the Rocky Mountains and helped drive a polar vortex across much of the middle third of the United States, from the Midwest to South Texas. Dubbed Winter Storm Uri, the system brought freezing temperatures to Texas that were unprecedented in scale and scope.
Texas is no stranger to ice storms, but Uri was unique in that it plunged most of the state into a prolonged period of below-freezing temperatures that, combined with continuous precipitation, resulted in critical conditions. When the Texas power grid failed and outages spread across the state, it became clear that Texas’ power grid was ill-prepared for such a weather event. Millions were left without power, heating and clean water. At least 246 people died.
Failures occurred across both renewable and fossil fuel sources. However, key contributors to the crisis were the overreliance on natural gas, Texas’ unique energy market, and a failure to winterize renewables and transmission and distribution infrastructures.
Earlier this year, the Maguire Energy Institute’s Energy Outlook ’23 symposium, hosted by the SMU Cox School of Business in collaboration with the George W. Bush Presidential Center, looked at how Texas’ electricity markets and infrastructure have responded in the nearly two and a half years since Winter Storm Uri.
Titled “Grid Reliability in the Age of Renewables,” the symposium focused on the challenges faced by the Texas power grid, the role renewable energy can play in creating a more reliable and resilient energy system and the question on everyone’s mind: Has Texas successfully responded since Uri to ensure that such a lethal catastrophe can never happen again?
Addressing the Root Causes of Winter Storm Uri
At the Energy Outlook ’23 symposium, panelists revisited what we have learned about the exact causes of the power outages over the past two and a half years and how both state regulators and energy companies have taken measures to address the issues.
Both renewables and fossil fuel sources buckled under the strain of the extreme weather, explained Jim Burke, president and CEO of Vistra Corp. This triggered ERCOT, the Texas grid manager, to initiate managed blackouts that eventually covered most of the state.
“Coal, nuclear, gas, wind, solar all had struggles,” Burke says. “Units started to come offline as a combination of temperature and wind created freezing conditions. And ERCOT was forced to balance the grid to make sure that we didn’t lose even more power as a result of having an uncontrolled kind of grid loss.”
Texas’ power grid, designed to withstand extreme heat and not extreme cold, was ill-prepared to manage the surge in demand brought on by the unusually harsh winter weather. Natural gas wells and pipelines were insufficiently winterized. Wind turbines froze, and solar energy was inconsistent during the storm. Even coal shipments became difficult to move into the state across frozen tracks. Because there was no single infrastructure or energy source failure, addressing the vulnerabilities required a more multifaced approach.
Brad Jones, the former CEO of ERCOT brought in after Uri to fix the state’s problems, says the agency and the state public utilities commission have implemented various measures over the past two and a half years to address these issues.
“They have implemented requirements for generators to weatherize their facilities, approved new transmission, requiring some facilities to have backup fuel supplies, operating the grid more conservatively and improved communications,” Jones says.
However, Jones warned that some issues still need to be addressed, particularly ensuring that the state’s power generation facilities will continue to have a reliable supply of natural gas during all forms of extreme weather.
Renewable Energy and the Path to Grid Resilience
On the surface, the concern about ensuring reliable natural gas supplies appears to contradict the other major trend that has shaped the future of energy in Texas over the past two and a half years: the ongoing adoption of renewable energy. Texas leads the nation in renewable energy production, and symposium panelists agreed that the combination of low costs and low emissions that renewables provide will continue to make it central to Texas’ energy future.
But the winter storm also exposed one of the main vulnerabilities of renewable energy: maintaining a reliable energy source when weather conditions aren’t cooperating. When weather inhibits wind or solar production, the gap must be made up by relying on energy stored in batteries or power plants fueled primarily by natural gas. Battery technology is improving, and batteries could play an increasingly central role in establishing a resilient grid in the future. However, Burke explained, it is currently limited in maintaining grid reliability during extreme weather events.
“The battery tries to bridge the intermittency gap we see with resources that are weather-dependent, but there’s only so much duration built into the battery,” Burke says. “In order to decarbonize the grid, we’re going to need the wind and the solar, and will probably use the batteries as best we can, to bridge what I’d call the normal day—so, average temperatures and consumer demand coupled with a day sunny enough to fuel solar generation and a night windy enough to produce electricity. But when you’re getting to these extreme weather conditions in the summer and the winter with limited wind or sun, you’re probably going to have to call on something else, and that something else, we believe, is [natural] gas. That’s just being pragmatic.”
That’s where Jones’ concerns over the continued access to natural gas kick in. Although the state continues to explore new energy sources, including the possibility of newer, smaller, more flexible nuclear technologies, natural gas remains the most tried-and-tested on-tap source for continual electricity production.
Even renewable plants require some amount of natural gas to sustain operations. It is why symposium panelists agreed that Texas’ renewable energy future will never be an all-or-nothing approach to electricity production. A diversified energy fleet, including wind, solar, batteries, natural gas and zero-carbon nuclear energy, is necessary to ensure the grid’s reliability during extreme weather events.
The 21st-Century Texas Power Grid
Building a resilient grid is a somewhat thankless task. If the effort is successful, most consumers will never notice that the grid continues to provide reliable electricity at a time when the weather might have otherwise taken power offline. Several of the panelists pointed to more recent winter storms that did not result in major blackouts, and while they didn’t reach the scale and scope of Winter Storm Uri, they did suggest that efforts taken over the past two and a half years are working.
Extreme weather is not the only challenge that Texas’ energy grid will need to contend with to ensure reliability. Burke says he anticipates a significant increase in electricity demand by 2050. Texas will not only need to invest in a more resilient grid, but it will also need to expand the grid’s capacity to meet growing demand. This effort brings another key consumer concern into the mix: affordability. Texas has among the lowest rates in the country, and maintaining this affordability while ensuring grid reliability is a significant challenge.
But panelists agreed that this challenge also creates an opportunity. The aftermath of the Great Texas Freeze offers a chance to rethink and reshape Texas’ power grid. By building on the lessons learned, Texas can forge a resilient, reliable and diversified energy future better prepared to handle extreme weather events and the changing demands of a growing population.
These efforts are not only crucial for the well-being of all Texans but also serve as a crucial case study for the rest of the country and the world on how to adapt and overcome challenges in the face of climate change-induced extreme weather events.