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.

...Building electric grids that are resilient in the face of increasingly wild and unpredictable weather will be an enormous challenge, experts said. In many cases, it may prove expensive, although, as Texas shows, the costs of grid failure can be extremely costly, too.

“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.”

It's a bit complex to explain but Arctic air that plunges into subtropical regions such as Texas and just parks itself there is the product of a rapidly warming polar region. Last year a small town in Siberia recorded 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as other regions. That creates a more energized atmosphere that is able to overpower the temperate, Ferrel cell that once kept that cold air largely confined to the Arctic.

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.

What's underway in Texas illustrates a common failure. We don't want to pay to fix these vulnerabilities. Restoring resilience costs money. This is the era of "Everyday Low Taxes." We don't want to pay them and those who levy taxes don't want to raise them lest they open a Pandora's Box of really awkward questions about why the rich really aren't paying their share, tax dodging and such.

What our leaders don't want to discuss is that, costly as it is, it's cheaper to rebuild our infrastructure now than what it will cost the economy and all of us when it fails. What was designed and built for the past cannot be relied upon to serve our vital needs in the future. The engine warning light is on. We can ignore it and just keep driving this beater, taking our chances, but we know how that ends even if we don't know precisely when.


  1. Apparently about 10% of the turbines froze up.
    Texas ignored the need for more expensive lubricants.

    About 50% of the gas production froze up.
    Of course the green-new-deal is being blamed.

    I've just been reading that Texas is not part of the national electrical grid of the USA.
    To avoid regulations and save money.

    If they get bailed out now, perhaps they should join the world and pay their dues.

    1. They had a not dissimilar failure during the drought/heatwaves of the past couple of years. As demand for power needed for air conditioning soared there wasn't enough water in the cooling ponds to allow the thermal electric plants to generate enough supply. Again they went for rolling blackouts which, in one of the hottest regions of the US, left a lot of people in a bad way.

      Don't mess with Texas, indeed.

  2. As is the case almost everywhere, Mound, we insist on doing things on the cheap -- and things just get worse.

    1. A dollar short and a day late, Owen. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the truisms that got us through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries.

  3. RE,

    What's underway in Texas illustrates a common failure. We don't want to pay to fix these vulnerabilities. Restoring resilience costs money. This is the era of "Everyday Low Taxes." We don't want to pay them and........

    Sadly it's the vulnerable that bare the cost.

    I live in an area where , thirty years ago, electrical power failure was commonplace in winter.
    These last few years has seen a noticeable effort by our electricity provider, BC Hydro to trim the trees along the power line route .
    The resulting benefits have been lost on the average consumer..


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