Texas as Warning: The US Grid is in Trouble

by | Feb 22, 2021 | Blog Articles, Energy

It was less than a month ago, but well before the blizzard that savaged Texas’s electrical grid, when I wrote that the Biden Administration’s efforts to cancel Keystone XL were:

… symptomatic of a greater folly.  For the first time in decades, America finally regained its energy independence. Yet the Biden Administration is prepared to squander it in quixotic pursuit of the noble but unattainable dream of a complete migration from fossil fuels to renewables.  The US government is extremely powerful, but what it cannot do under any administration is cause the sun to shine at night or the wind blow based on executive order. We are a long way off from the day when renewable energy can power heavy manufacturing and the needs of our cities.  

The power grid failures in Texas and elsewhere have brought the issue back into clear and urgent relief.  The electrical grid in the United States is of particular risk due to its age, scope, and complexity. More than 70 of the grid’s transmission lines and transformers are over 30 years old. The average age of an American power plant is approaching 40 years. Today, the average age in the US of a gas steam turbine is 50 years, a coal plant is 40 years, and a combined cycle gas plant is 15 years. Notwithstanding the progress renewables have made, and the hype surrounding the greening of the grid, we still rely on coal and gas for nearly two-thirds of our power, and an additional 20 comes from nuclear, which plants average 38 years old. A study by the Congressional Research Service reported that the US has the highest number of blackout minutes per customer per year of any of nine developed nations. The next worse country, Spain, had less than half of the US number. These interruptions cost Americans $150 billion per year on average.

Gretchen Bakke, in her 2016 book The Grid, tells the story of how the 2003 Northeast Blackout, “the largest blackout in our nation’s history, and the third-largest ever in the world, swept across the eastern half of the United States and parts of Canada, blacking out eight states and 50 million people for two days.”  It resulted in an estimated $6 billion in losses.  What commenced in an instant and occurred over a matter of minutes, took days to restore and years to understand. Each of these small starting points – apparently insignificant glitches in vastly complex networks –, an overgrown tree, some poorly written software, ultimately cascaded into a systemic crisis that took down the grid for a substantial portion of America for days. 

And now, nearly twenty years later, America has experienced another systemic failure event, this one leaving millions of Americans without power or heat for several days in a frigidly cold and dark mid-winter.  Many were without access to food or clean water during this time, and tens of Americans died.  When will we heed the warnings?  How many more of these events have to happen before we begin to take seriously the risks to our aging grid?

High voltage transformers remain the weak link.  There are 30 of them that are “critical.” The loss of nine of them in certain combinations could cripple the grid nationwide. If they were custom-built domestically, they could be replaced within 12-24 months “under benign, low demand conditions.” However, since the US had offshored most of its manufacturing capabilities, there is a risk that delivery from overseas could take up to three years. 

We need to accelerate timetables to modernize and harden our electrical, telecom and other critical infrastructure as a top national priority. The crisis in Texas has also once again demonstrated the need to proactively create redundancies and flexibility in our supply chains, even at the cost of inefficiency.  While a sustained power outage and lack of electricity wreaks great havoc across several aspects of life, from transportation to communication to health care and otherwise, one of the more dire and immediate effects is the impact on food security. Large cities fare the worst. We must therefore urgently create and enhance national stockpiles of food, fuel, pharmaceutical products, and medical supplies that could be drawn upon in an emergency.

Extracted and modified from Stormwall: Observations on America in Peril.

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