Excerpt, RMI, 2/18/21…
Wind turbine icing is the “least significant factor” in driving the outages, according to an ERCOT spokesperson. Additionally, it is notable that this is a relatively straightforward problem to solve. For example, in Canada “cold weather packages” allow wind turbines to operate in very low temperatures. Moreover, grid planners know and expect that wind power is often unavailable during system peaks, and instead leverage wind for its primary benefit: cost-effective and pollution-free power whenever the wind is blowing.
On the other hand, a primary justification for fuel-dependent generation is its theoretical ability to generate regardless of the weather — which has not been realized in practice in Texas this week, with over 40% of the coal, gas, and nuclear fleet offline due to the cold.
Systemic Solutions Are the Only Path Forward
To respond to such a fundamental disruptor as climate change, and its impacts not only on the electricity grid but also on the energy economy as a whole, we need to look beyond the familiar strategies rooted in last century’s technology. Such legacy solutions typically focus on “hardening” individual elements of the grid, but fail to address the interdependencies and emerging risks that can create widespread and catastrophic power outages.
Three categories of solutions that move beyond backward-looking solutions can begin to mitigate these risks. First, grid planners and policymakers must account for the “new normals” facing the grid. In particular, climate change-driven extreme weather events (including heat, fire, or the present cold snap) must be accounted for in planning — as well as their interplay with emerging electrification trends (in both vehicles and buildings) that make electricity even more critical.
Second, the industry should transition away from legacy resilience approaches and toward solutions that acknowledge 21st century risks and leverage appropriate technology to address them. Technologies including targeted energy efficiency, demand flexibility, community-scale and rooftop solar PV, battery storage systems, and advanced distribution system controls are located close to end-use customers, and can thus maintain service to critical facilities and loads during broader grid outages. Such technologies can also deliver economic value during normal grid operations and support community energy goals, and therefore provide lower-cost and higher-value resilience than costly investments in redundant fossil fuel generators.
Third, the industry must also continue to prioritize investments that modernize aging grid infrastructure. To achieve the carbon emissions reductions necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change and thus truly address a leading root cause of grid instability that will otherwise get worse, we must expand electricity grids to power greater shares of the economy. Doing so with resilience in mind from the start can lower the costs and risks associated with the transition. For example, expanding transmission networks to access low-cost renewable energy resources can also boost diversity of supply, improving reliability and resilience of the grid to extreme weather-driven disruption.
Utilities large and small are already proving the case for these solutions to grid reliability and resilience in a rapidly changing climate and energy system. And though some of the required changes may be unfamiliar, the cost of inaction is high. We will have few opportunities to reimagine grid resilience to effectively respond to emerging risks. We will have even fewer opportunities to do so in a cost-conscious way that achieves resilience by design, rather than as a costly adder only after the effects of climate change become ever more dire.