For most Texans, the concept of electricity reliability is binary – it either works or it doesn’t. Like a light switch, you have access to the electricity that you need when you need it, or you don’t. We also expect the electric system to be resilient. Resilience is the equivalent of the backstop to reliability. It is a measure of the robustness of the system to absorb shocks and either continue to operate, or if it fails, to quickly recover and operate again.
In the early morning of February 15, 2021, the ERCOT electric system that over 26 million Texans depend upon, failed. The essential infrastructure that depends upon reliable electricity, from water supply and natural gas to telecommunications experienced cascading failures across their systems and in turn they were forced to interrupt the crucial services of drinking water, heat and communication on a wide area basis. Reliability and resilience staggered in the balance.
The twin impacts of Winter Storms Uri and Viola on Texas and its energy system was catastrophic. The consequences for Texans were tragic. These impacts included at least 210 Texans who lost their life during the storm and substantial and lingering economic impact to the entire region that is estimated to exceed $200 – $300 billion[i] in addition to disputes and securitizations. The economic impact of Uri and Viola was greater than the impact from either of the two most costly hurricanes[ii] in US history, Harvey ($145B) or Katrina ($161B). In comparison, in 2019 Texans spent around $37 billion on retail power during the entire year[iii]. Regardless of the metric, from public safety to economic impact Uri and Viola deserve a comprehensive response to prevent recurrence.
Uri and Viola had direct impact on infrastructure across Texas, from agriculture to roads and homes that generated substantial economic and personal harm. It also complicated the response. Transportation corridors became impassable from accumulated precipitation, hindering the response capabilities of people and equipment to respond to essential infrastructure problems and failures, which often led to further failures. There is no effective tool to be able to allocate specific responsibility of what impacts were directly from the weather itself, what was directly impacted by the failure of the electric system and what were indirect impacts. However, ASCE believes that the failure of the electricity grid was directly and indirectly a material contributor to the economic harm and human tragedy experienced during and after Winter Storms Uri and Viola.
The Texas Section of ASCE determined that the problems uncovered by the severe storm extended well beyond storm related issues. Texas has a substantial and growing electric system reliability and resilience problem. A reliable and resilient electric system in an increasingly electrified economy is critical to the safety and economic health of our fellow Texans. ASCE’s urgency is driven by the conclusion that the failures that caused overwhelming human and economic suffering during February will increase in frequency and duration due to legacy market design shortcomings, growing infrastructure interdependence, economic and population growth drivers, and aging equipment even if the frequency and severity of weather events remains unchanged.
There is a legacy of chronic under-investment to maintain critical infrastructure across the US. Policies, regulations, and market actions that distort, constrain, or negatively impact the flow of capital to needed investment starves reliability through deferred expansions, delayed maintenance, and reduced reliability investment. The reliability of critical infrastructure, from transportation and energy to water, wastewater, and telecoms, is heavily impacted either positively or negatively by the sufficiency and predictability of ongoing investments supporting maintenance and reliability upgrades. Many of the negative impacts of this under-investment are more acute for those individuals at the margin, relying on critical infrastructure with few viable options.
Underfunding creates other problems including worsening public safety and compliance issues. This pattern of deferral and avoidance, results in a costly “run to failure” outcome followed by surprise that reliability and resilience was somehow compromised. This pattern of persistent underfunding must change. Due to the extreme costs of reliability failure, it is reckless to believe that the energy market transition should somehow be used as justification for reliability declines and extended load shedding events. For energy transition to work effectively and be accepted, it must occur without any sacrifice of reliability and resilience.
To understand the root cause of the Winter Storm Uri and Viola and Viola problems, it was necessary to look beyond (1) the physical infrastructure and to include (2) the impact of regulations that apply to the use of the infrastructure and (3) the markets themselves. The energy infrastructure system works or fails by how well these three legs of the energy market work together. The next most consequential contributor to reliability degradation is the relentless creep of interdependence between infrastructure sectors, which contributes to increasing the fragility of each system(s) and sets the stage for cascading failures across sectors. Interdependence occurs when the reliability of one sector is mutually dependent on the reliable performance of another sector. Like market-based pricing and transition to renewable generation, interdependence between infrastructure sectors is not going away.
The Executive Summary Report of Reliability and Resilience in the Balance provides further details of the analysis, conclusions, and recommended actions to implement to avoid repeating the experiences of February 2021. The Full Report will be available later this quarter.
To learn more or to make a media request, visit www.texasce.org/beyond-storms.
[i] The Perryman Group (2021), Preliminary Estimate of Economic Costs of the February 2021 Texas Winter Storm, February 2021. (low case = $197.2B, High case= $295.8B)
[ii] The Perryman Group (2017), Preliminary Estimate of Economic Costs of Hurricane Harvey, August 31, 2017 ($145B). and NOAA.gov Office of Coastal Management, Fast Facts – Hurricane Costs