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Texas' dangerous week in the dark is a wake-up call for the country's infrastructure

When winter storms bring extreme cold, snow and ice as far south as Texas and Louisiana, power outages from downed lines are expected.What is not expe...

Posted: Feb 20, 2021 1:33 PM
Updated: Feb 20, 2021 2:30 PM

When winter storms bring extreme cold, snow and ice as far south as Texas and Louisiana, power outages from downed lines are expected.

What is not expected is a grid meltdown on the scale that occurred in Texas this week, which wiped out power across much of the state and left millions to fend for themselves in some of the coldest temperatures this part of the country has ever seen.

While Texas has borne the brunt of the damage and suffering from this storm, experts say other states and grid operators should take notice.

Exactly what role climate change played in bringing frigid arctic air to the country's midsection is a matter of scientific debate.

However, scientists are confident that global warming is likely to bring new threats to critical infrastructure -- from more intense and frequent heat waves to more damaging storms -- to places that have rarely experienced them.

And the changes that humans have inflicted on the climate mean that the weather patterns we've experienced in the past will have less bearing on the types of conditions we can expect in the future.

'The more we force the climate away from what it's been like for much of the last 10,000 years, the more likely we are to have surprises come up,' said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental think tank.

Preparing for climate change's curveballs will be difficult -- and expensive, experts say.

But there are key lessons they say we must learn from Texas so that we are better prepared for the next disaster.

Is this deep freeze connected to climate change? The jury is still out

There is abundant scientific evidence that climate change is making heat waves hotter and longer lasting across the globe.

But is global warming also increasing the odds that frigid air masses -- like the one that swept over much of the United States this week -- can escape from the Arctic and settle over the lower latitudes?

On this question, scientists aren't sure yet.

Central to this theory is the Arctic, which is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. But despite the Arctic's rapid thaw, it is still much colder than the rest of the planet.

Circling the region is a jet stream, a band of winds that blow west to east and provide a barrier of sorts between cold, arctic air and the warmer mid-latitudes.

The jet stream, however, doesn't just blow around the top of the planet in a perfect circle -- it curves up and down for various reasons, allowing cold air to occasionally dip south.

That appears to be what happened this week, albeit a very extreme version, said Tim Woollings, a professor of climate science at the University of Oxford, whose research has focused on changes to the jet stream over time.

Some studies in recent years have suggested that Arctic warming could be connected to a wavier jet stream, which might allow these episodes where cold air plunges south to occur more frequently.

But Woollings says we just don't have enough data yet to know whether these types of events are going to become more common in the future.

This doesn't mean that we won't still have occasional cold snaps -- even ones as extreme as this one. But the more humans heat up the planet, it is likely they will become increasingly rare.

'These are definitely interesting theories, but at the moment there's not a lot of evidence for them,' he said.

Preparing for 'uncharted territory'

There is, however, abundant evidence that climate change is increasing the threats of a variety of extreme events, which will stress critical systems in ways they have not been tested before.

Flooding, heat, wildfires and drought are just some of the extreme weather events that will pose an increased risk of disruption the more humans heat the planet, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, the US government's most recent comprehensive look at the effects of climate change.

'Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services, and health and well-being,' the report warns.

So how do we prepare complex systems -- such as our energy grids -- to cope?

Scientists say doing so will require a delicate balancing act -- both ensuring systems can stand up to today's conditions, while also planning for weather extremes outside the bounds of what we've experienced before.

'We are really in uncharted territory and we need to focus a lot more on resilience going forward to respond to new and perhaps unprecedented extremes,' Hausfather said.

Texas' power grid -- at least so far -- has shown it is equipped to handle the cooling demands of a scorching Texas summer, when millions of air-conditioning units hum to make life indoors bearable.

But when temperatures dropped this week, heating and electricity demands shot up. At the same time that demand surged, electricity supplies were hobbled by natural gas and coal plants that froze up.

Wind turbines also froze, leading some politicians to blame renewables for the disaster, despite the fact that coal and gas represent more than half of Texas' power generation capacity, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and therefore played an even bigger role in causing the blackouts.

The solution to preventing another situation like this is not necessarily to go all in on one energy source or abandon others, said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University who studies energy systems and policy.

In general, diverse energy systems that draw on multiple sources are more resilient, Jenkins said.

Instead, we need to engineer our existing systems to function in more extreme weather. That includes both weatherizing power plants and wind turbines themselves, but also insulating our homes to improve efficiency, so that they require less energy to stay warm or cool in the first place.

This isn't the first time that weakness in Texas' electricity system has been exposed.

In 2011, another cold snap knocked out power to 3.2 million ERCOT customers. In the aftermath, a 350-page federal report on the outages found that the power generators' winterization procedures were 'either inadequate or were not adequately followed.'

This storm and its aftermath has already claimed dozens of lives, and the death toll is expected to climb.

It will take time for the full scale of the property destruction caused by the arctic blast to come into view, but it is likely it caused multiple billions of dollars in damages, said Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at Aon.

'The impact the winter weather is having on the infrastructure grid and business interruption in the state of Texas is comparable to what has been seen historically to hurricane landfalls in the state,' Bowen said.

After this, will the state be willing to pay the bill to keep the lights on in the next deep freeze? And are parts of the country that are used to the cold prepared to make the investments needed to withstand the next record-breaking heat wave?

Girding these systems will not be cheap, Jenkins said. But as this episode has shown, people will pay for it, one way or another.

'(This extreme cold) was outside the range of conditions that was planned for, or was considered to be so infrequent that it wasn't worth the additional cost to weatherize different kinds of infrastructure and buildings,' said Jenkins. 'I think we'll see at the end of this, when the damage is tallied -- and hopefully not too many lives have been lost -- whether or not that calculus was accurate.'

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Clouds shrouded northern California today, but we didn't receive much rainy weather for all the gray. Light showers are possible through tonight. The clouds will stay through midday tomorrow, followed by a clearing of our sky.
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