When Grids Fail
Climate change is the mortal enemy of public infrastructure - the highways, railways, ports and electrical grids we (i.e. our parents and grandparents) built to facilitate our modern economies. The engineers of the day stayed busy with their slide rules as they looked for that sweet spot where affordability met dependability. Among other things they had to factor in existing and future demand, leaving plenty of room for growth, and the conditions that the infrastructure would have to withstand over the coming decades.
One thing those engineers rarely took into account was climate change. They designed to meet the relatively gentle climate of the Holocene. They did not, nor could they, anticipate the more destructive, more challenging demands of the energized climate of the Anthropocene.
When it comes to failing infrastructure the electrical grid is the miners' canary. Around the world, the local grid must meet increasing demands for cooling in the heatwaves of summer and for heating in the freezing blasts of winter.
Today, Texas is in a rare and unexpected deep freeze. Cold Arctic air has the Lone Star state in its grip and the grid can't meet the demand for ever more electricity. It's a hard lesson in what the future has in store.Huge winter storms have plunged large parts of the central and southern United States into an energy crisis this week as frigid blasts of Arctic weather crippled electric grids and left millions of Americans without power amid dangerously cold temperatures.
Analysts have begun to identify a few key factors behind the grid failures in Texas. Record-breaking cold weather spurred residents to crank up their electric heaters and pushed demand for electricity beyond the worst-case scenarios that grid operators had planned for. At the same time, many of the state’s gas-fired power plants were knocked offline amid icy conditions, and some plants appeared to suffer fuel shortages as natural gas demand spiked nationwide. Many of Texas’ wind turbines also froze and stopped working, although this was a smaller part of the problem.
“It’s essentially a question of how much insurance you want to buy,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University. “What makes this problem even harder is that we’re now in a world where, especially with climate change, the past is no longer a good guide to the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”
Rossby waves that plunge deep into southern regions and high into Arctic areas develop and they have a nasty habit of parking themselves over their destination. In February a few years ago, Atlanta, Georgia, was plunged into a deep freeze while Barrow, Alaska basked in temperatures in the mid-60s. The graphic below illustrates how the jet stream is altered from the gently undulating snake of the past into a pattern of peaks and troughs.