Texas has become the poster child for how to do everything wrong in utility and climate planning. We all suffered through the same cold weather, many experienced even colder temperatures, but it was Texas that got hit the hardest.
One Dallas news outlet quoted that this winter storm could be the most costly weather disaster in Texas history — and that includes Hurricane Harvey. The Lone Star state became the first major disaster declaration of the Biden administration on Saturday.
Columbia, and mid-Missouri in general, survived the event relatively unscathed even with some of the coldest weather in 20 years. Sanborn Field data shows that the 14-day stretch ending last Saturday was the lowest average temperature for any two weeks since 2000. Not that there weren’t problems, especially frozen pipes, but no widespread outages nor disaster declarations here.
The wacky weather does raise a question about climate. Weather variability is predicted to be an outcome of climate change, and we certainly got that in the last 30 days. Is there a connection?
To get to the bottom of this question you have to go up, literally up into the stratosphere. In a blog posted at Climate.gov, Michelle L’Heureux wrote about Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW). She and a group of climatologists focused on an event that occurred over the arctic this past January. She offered an explanation of how the cold air was freed up there to start its migration here.
The stratosphere is about 4 to 5 miles above ground level, and the section of the stratosphere hovering over the Arctic is an ocean of winter air that is quite cold. It usually stays there, bottled up by circulating winds called the polar vortex. It’s like an enormous funnel holding an ocean of cold air, with the neck shut tight by the fast motion of the polar vortex winds.
Every other winter or so, the polar vortex containment breaks down. Warmer air pushes in to the system and the winds of the polar vortex start slowing down, even stopping. The result dissolves the bottleneck, allowing the ocean of air to escape and flow out to unknown destinations. First moving down through the Arctic and then into the lower latitudes, it can end up anywhere — the U.S. East Coast, Europe or Asia. This year it ended up in the mid-continent of the U.S., including Texas.
Warming over the Arctic region may seem easily linked to climate change. After all, there is something called Arctic amplification, which describes the accelerated warming that is happening there. Amy Butler, another climate scientist on the blog, disagrees, saying it isn’t that straightforward. She explains that the very forces at work warming the planet can be seen two ways, as forces working to strengthen the polar vortex and to weaken it. So, for now, it is too early to tell if and which way climate change may be pushing sudden stratospheric warming, and thus behind our recent cold spell.
The other side of this coin is our vulnerability to such weather. Are we in mid-Missouri as vulnerable to weather extremes as those in Texas? The short answer is yes, no and maybe. First, the yes.
Texas went into Valentine’s Day thinking it was ready. Then, that afternoont, temperatures began dropping to record lows. Electric demand started rising and ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, called for generators across the state to come on to meet the rising load. Many of said generators, and even pumps at natural gas wells, failed to work because of the cold weather. Between rising loads and a diminished capacity to supply electricity, it took less than one day for ERCOT to begin shutting out customers, reducing Texas from one of the most prestigious energy-rich states to one of the most humbled. So, yes, anything can happen to anyone at any time, which is why we have to take these lessons seriously and use them to reassess our resilience. It would be hubris to think otherwise.
But then, we are not Texas. Texas is not interconnected to any other state. Without interconnections, its first and only backup plan in a pinch is to lower loads by turning off huge swaths of customers on a rotating basis. This is not a good situation for anybody in near-zero temperatures.
We are not in that situation. As part of a grid that is interconnected with a large multi-state region, we are able to reach across state lines for power, should we require it. We also don’t have a deregulated electricity market, which Texas has. Deregulated markets can drive prices down, but it also reduces investment incentives for such things as cold hardening. So no, we are not like Texas in some important ways. That brings us to the maybe.
The maybe is that there’s a lot we don’t know yet. What has Texas done to improve its infrastructure since 2011 when there was a similar cold-weather event? In the aftermath of that debacle, a report was prepared by federal reliability experts detailing why the natural gas equipment failed to function and what it could do to fix it. Did ERCOT follow those recommendations or not? That is a maybe. Whether those improvements were made or not will be crucial to figuring out where responsibility lies for this current event.
We have our own utility infrastructure issues here in Columbia. Currently, the city has a task force working with a consultant to make recommended improvements to our electric system. Following those recommendations may be expensive and difficult, which is why the maybe is applicable for us too, not just to Texas.