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How the Texas power grid is beating the cold front

Jan 19

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As the largest power consumer in the nation, Texas faces a significant challenge this winter as it grapples with an Arctic blast. Following a power grid collapse in 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, has implemented significant regulatory and structural changes to cope with the increased demand for heating.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan explains how the integration of new wind turbines and solar panels has played a vital role in stabilizing Texas’ power grid. He argues that this approach serves as a blueprint not just for the rest of the country but for the global energy landscape.

Excerpted from Peter’s Jan. 19 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

With cold fronts rushing through much of the country, the Texas power grid had lots of eyes on it this past week. Thankfully, some “updates” over the past couple years have helped the Texans avoid catastrophe.

There’s a handful of reasons this storm was weathered: a shorter cold snap, regulatory changes, and structural updates. The first one is self-explanatory, but let’s breakdown the last two.

Governor Abbot introduced a series of winterizing efforts following the 2021 crisis, which enabled the natural gas system to continue operating through the storm. The winterizing technology used is over 50 years old, so I use the term – updates – loosely.

As for the structural updates, Texas is a bit ahead of the game; they’ve introduced some ‘Texas-sized’ wind turbines and expanded solar capacity. Combine the expansion in clean energy and a more reliable natural gas baseload system, Texas had its bases covered.

These changes made in Texas are just one example of how global energy systems will adapt and evolve over the next few decades.

Hey everybody. Winter’s here, I’m coming to you from eastern Washington. And today we’re going to talk about winter in Texas. Now, if you guys remember back a couple of years, it was 2021, Texas got hit by a cold storm. And basically everything collapsed, all of their energy generation, especially natural gas just ceased functioning. And 200 people died over the course of a couple of weeks because of the loss of electricity. That has not repeated with this cold front, even though by many measures, in most parts of the state, temperatures got a little bit lower. So five things are different now compared to what happened back in 2021.

First of all, while it did get as cold or even a little colder, the cold snap wasn’t quite as long, it didn’t last like the two and a half weeks like it did last time. So the system wasn’t put under as much long-term stress. But the bigger issues have to do with organizational and structural changes that the Texans have implemented. The big driving factor for things on the legal side of the regulatory side was Governor Abbott, who had spent a lot of time before 2021 making fun of California for the rolling brown- and blackouts, because they just have a horrible grid and horrible energy system. And then of course, in Texas, you had 200 people die, so he was personally motivated to make some changes. And he pushed them through the legislature, which forced the regulatory structures in Texas to adjust, and the biggest part of those changes affected the natural gas industry.

So Texas before 2021 didn’t have its natural gas system winterized at all. And there’s a lot of water vapor that comes up as a byproduct of natural gas production. And a lot of time it’s in the gathering pipes. So what would happen when we got to sub-freezing temperatures, is that water vapor would condense into liquid and eventually condense into ice and then clog the pipes. So the entire system across especially northern Texas in the Dallas area froze up. And so there was no fuel to burn to do everything else. For political reasons, Abbott blamed the wind industry because, you know, the wind did stop blowing, but it was mostly natural gas that carries the backbone of power generation in Texas. And that is what failed most spectacularly.

So in order to get things going, they actually had to waive almost all of their safety regimens and regulations. And people were going out with saline torches to manually melt the pipes. And of course, natural gas is [a] flammable explosive. So we were kind of lucky that that didn’t get completely out of hand. Anyway, this time around, the changes in regulations forced producers across Texas to actually implement some of the best winterizing technologies that we had back in the 1960s. And the Texas grid now is on par with where Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico were about 1975. So you know, this is some really basic stuff when it comes to things like insulation, anyway, it was more than enough to make a difference. Okay, so that was the first big structural change.

The other big structural changes had nothing to do with regulation. It’s just how things have evolved. So the new turbines, wind turbines that the Texans have put up, are more than 200 feet taller than the ones that were up three years ago. And that means they reach higher, they tap stronger air currents that are more reliable. So even though the wind did drop, we didn’t see nearly the drop off in power generation capacity, because the physical structure is no different.

Second, Texas has put up a whole lot of solar. And when these winter storms come through Texas, usually what you get is a lot of wind, a lot of freezing rain, maybe some snow, and then once they blow through, it’s cold. But it’s clear. And so when you have temperatures in the 20s, solar doesn’t really care what the temperature is, unless it’s like crazy, low or crazy hot. So solar was generating near-record energy for the time of year. So you had two different streams of energy coming into the electrical system that they didn’t really have last time. And their baseload system with natural gas worked a lot better than it did. This sort of change is the sort of thing we’re going to see in some way across not just Texas, but the entire country, the eventual world, we’re seeing more and more wind and one or more solar. And it doesn’t always go right the first time. And we discover that meshing these systems together is more problematic than kind of the breezy things that the greens say. But when you have multiple systems that do feed into the same network, you do get a lot of redundancy. When one works and the other doesn’t, the trick is to make sure you have enough spare capacity that you can dispatch at any given time.

Now in the past, solar and wind aren’t very good at that, because you can’t dispatch them if the sun’s not out, if the wind’s not blowing, they’re kind of useless, and you have to rely on older fossil fuel things like natural gas, but what we’re seeing in Texas specifically, is it, we’re already seeing turbines that are 800 meters tall, and in the next year or two, we’re going to be pushing the kilometer-tall barrier, and again, stronger currents, more reliable use for baseload. So I don’t mean to suggest that all of these problems when it comes to storms and interruptions are going to go away, but as the technology evolves, we’re getting better able to adapt, and having a little bit more insulation on the backside as well. That’s it for me.

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