Updated: Jan 10, 2022
In the midst of an unusual and devastating winter storm, as many as four million households in Texas had lost power by last Tuesday.
Generators were taken offline by the extreme weather at the same time as sub-zero temperatures caused demand for electricity to go up, resulting in widespread outages. Texans were left struggling to stay warm without electricity, in some cases for days on end.
Sadly, the outage quickly became a political football, with Republicans arguing that the power loss was primarily due to shutdowns at Texas wind farms (a claim that is demonstrably false).
This outage has lessons it can teach to the energy industry everywhere, including here in Ontario and Canada:
It’s hard to prepare for the unexpected
Scientists are divided on whether this cold snap is a direct result of climate change. But whether this particular event is such a result, it is beyond dispute that climate change is causing more extreme weather events—heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, and more. This Texas winter storm is a reminder of just how vulnerable we are when our infrastructure isn’t prepared for the unexpected.
No energy source is immune to failure
29,000 MW of thermal capacity (mostly gas and coal) went offline during the storm, stymied by shortages of fuel and difficulty operating in the cold. 16,000 MW of renewables also ceased operation. And a 1,312 MW nuclear unit was forced to shut down due to risks from the cold to the unit’s feedwater system (another unit was able to remain online through the storm).
Distribution of electricity was also impacted, leaving operators struggling to deliver electricity to where it was needed. The lesson is clear—no source of energy is completely failsafe. A diversified portfolio can help, but even that can be vulnerable to failure in extreme circumstances.
A resilient system requires energy reserve
All these factors were exacerbated by a shortage of adequate energy reserve in Texas, and a system that lacks interties with neighbouring states for emergency capacity.
These features make the Texas grid cheaper, but also more vulnerable in a crisis like this one. See below for a map of North America's five regional grids, or "interconnections" (note that while Quebec has its own independent grid, it is still connected to others).
The reality of climate change is that policymakers and energy providers will see themselves punished more often in the future for trying to cut corners on system resiliency.
Long-term planning is essential
Finally, the Texas experience demonstrates why a mostly unregulated electricity market brings significant risks. Left to the free market, generators have no choice but to compete for the lowest possible cost, and lack the incentive to plan redundancies and emergency capacity.
In Ontario, we are fortunate to have excellent regulators and system operators who work to keep our system safe and reliable.
As Ontario’s electricity grid expands, and as our province becomes more subject to our own versions of extreme weather, it will be more important than ever that these planners are empowered to do their work.
As it happens, the Ontario government is right now considering reforms to the long-term energy planning process.
And as they do, our government—and the whole industry—would do well to reflect on the lessons from outages like the one last week in Texas.
Written by David Campbell, former Director at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.