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Texas chose to go it alone for electricity. Now, it’s facing rolling blackouts.

A woman wrapped in a blanket crosses the street near downtown Dallas, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. Temperatures dropped into the single digits as snow shut down air travel and grocery stores. AP Photo by LM Otero

Texas, unaccustomed to the frigid temperatures that would pass for a normal winter in other parts of the country, should consider connecting its power grid to nearby states and take better preparations for what are likely to be more extreme weather events caused by a changing climate, according to Northeastern faculty experts.

Texas is unique in that its grid isn’t linked to the rest of the country because it didn’t want to have to comply with federal electricity regulations for selling power across state lines, explains Jennie C. Stephens, dean’s professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern.

“The problem with that is in the very cold conditions, the demand for electricity went way up and they didn’t have sufficient supply,” says Stephens, who is also director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and director of strategic research collaborations in the Global Resilience Institute.

Had a similar storm happened in New England, which is used to harsh winter weather, the area is connected to a broader network  and could have had more potential energy sources to draw from, she adds.

Left, Jennie C. Stephens, dean’s professor of sustainability science and policy. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University. Right, Ali Abur, professor of electrical and computer engineering. Courtesy photo.

But in Texas’s case, balancing high demand with lower capacity resulted in controlled, rolling blackouts similar to what California instituted over the hot summer when air conditioners ran virtually nonstop, she says.

One reason for interconnecting grids is to improve reliability when a sudden need for power occurs, says Ali Abur, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern. 

“You can import power from your neighbors who may have spare generation, but this is not possible for the Texas grid since it is not interconnected with the two large North American grids,” adds Abur, who also serves as Northeastern’s director at the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), which includes three other universities.

It was in 1935 when President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the federal government to oversee interstate electricity sales. Texas utilities avoided the federal rules by not selling electricity across state lines, explains Stephens.

Texas had so much coal, oil, and gas that it was confident that it could be self-sufficient. Now the energy mix also includes wind, hydroelectric, and solar. Today, it generates more electricity than any other state, she adds.

Images of Texas residents wrapped in blankets and huddled around fireplaces have dominated the headlines this week after several days of Arctic-like weather left millions without power or water, disrupted vaccine distributions, and made roads impassable.

Rolling blackouts were instituted across a broad swath of the middle of the country, as extreme cold disrupted power supplies across the U.S.

But the situation was worst in Texas, where as many as four million Texans were in the dark earlier in the week. That number has steadily declined as utility crews work to get the lights back on, according to media reports.

Clean water remains an issue. State health agencies issued warnings regarding widespread low water levels and urged residents to boil tap water.

“Due to conditions caused by the severe weather, the City is experiencing system-wide low water pressure causing our Boil Water Advisory,” Houston’s Office of Emergency Management tweeted.

The warnings come with more weather misery making its way across the country over the next few days. The National Weather Service predicted a major winter storm and bitter cold temperatures from the Rio Grande to the East Coast, and urged people to be prepared.

Better communication and advance warning from Texas officials would have been helpful before the initial storm hit, says Northeastern’s Stephens, but the state hasn’t been preparing for climate disruptions, including more extreme weather events. 

“There could have been more communication to tell folks that this is likely because the weather conditions were projected,” Stephens says.

The country as a whole is likely to continue to get more anomalous weather, necessitating more investments in critical infrastructure to prepare for future storms, she adds.

But it will be expensive, Northeastern’s Abur points out. Due to the low probability of having frigid days for long periods in warm climates, engineers are typically reluctant to invest in costly solutions to withstand such rare contingencies.

As the climate continues to change, the contingencies for which the system is designed to withstand will probably have to be revised, he adds.

“This may lead to different planning and operating practices, including investing in costly energy storage facilities,” Abur says.

Investing in physical infrastructure should go hand-in-hand with social infrastructure, adds Stephens, whose research includes a focus on social, economic, and racial justice in climate and energy policy. Lower-income communities tend to bear the brunt of big weather swings, she says.

“This is a social justice issue,” Stephens points out.

Looking ahead, commitment is needed at the federal level for investing in basic critical infrastructure, aligned with state policy. 

“We have been in a pattern of not wanting to spend money on critical infrastructure and now with the pandemic, as well as these extreme weather events, we are seeing the consequences,” Stephens says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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