The Texas Blackout is a Powerful Reminder that Systems Can Be Fragile

Texas Blackout Energy

To describe the blackout that occurred in Texas recently as tragic would be an understatement. It had serious consequences on the well-being of individuals, took a heavy toll on the state’s energy infrastructure and will end up costing taxpayer’s billions to repair. However, what is truly heartbreaking is that the suffering continues for many.

To date, the weather conditions that caused the blackout have resulted in:


According to the Independent, the estimated cost of damages is close to the $50 billion mark. While it appears that the situation couldn’t get worse, ERCOT – the Electric Reliability Council of Texas – now says the Texas power grid was “seconds or minutes” from a complete blackout that had the potential to last months.


The Contributing Factors to the Texas Blackout


This calamity was not the result of one point of failure. Rather, it was many failures many working together. Key causes include the fact that the Texas power system is not part of the national grid and that despite some serious winter storms that that had threatened the system in the past, there was no contingency planning for future events.

Systems Failure

The power system that serves 90 percent of the state is intentionally isolated from the rest of the country …  and their … competitive wholesale power market offers scant incentives for investment in backup power,” as stated in the Washington Post (2021).

The fact that the state has a completely independent grid demonstrates the lack of systems thinking. The premise of systems thinking is that the behavior of system is a result of the interaction of all the components with one another and not just from the performance or behavior of an individual part.

A direct consequence of this is that Texas cannot “borrow” power from the national grid when there are shortages (which other states that are on the same gird can do).

Insufficient Business Continuity Planning:

ERCOT, which manages the flow of power to over 26 million customers, “failed to reserve enough capacity to meet such foreseeable demands … and didn’t properly … “assess the integrity of its infrastructure, the environmental limitations of its power sources, and how abnormally cold weather may impact the availability of its power sources,” according to ABC News (2021). 

As a result of severe winter weather, energy-producing facilities went offline at the exact same time shivering Texans turned up their thermostats. This caused ERCOT to institute rolling blackouts, much like those that happened in California during the wildfires. Millions of homes and businesses were left without power. One expert told Insider that 40 gigawatts of electricity went offline, down from 46 gigawatts the day before. This was one of the “largest shortfalls in energy supply in modern U.S. history,” noted Benji Jones writing for Business Insider.

Ten years ago, in 2011, in a foretelling of what would happen in 2021, millions of Texans were left in the dark following winter storms. What those storms showed is that if Texas energy goes offline, there’s no backup from the national grid. It also showed that the Texas power grid facilities were not winterized, and probably should be.


Why the System Broke Down Entirely and How it Could Have Been Avoided


It basically boils down to this: the blackout was the result a few causes. Firstly, the existence of a fragile system (containing many interconnected elements), where the performance of the entire system can be undermined if it is faced with a change from internal or external sources. Secondly, the fact that Texas’ energy leaders lobbied to deregulate energy in the state as it would work towards their financial gain and that the state’s energy system is not a part of the national grid. Lastly, leaders decided that what happened in 2011 was a low probability event and they did not plan ahead for similar events in the future.  

The low energy costs and high profits they experienced in the past probably are cold comfort to Texans right now, as they try to move past the events that took such a toll on their state and their lives.

Sources


abc NEWS. (February 2021). ERCOT faces class-action lawsuit, resignations in wake of Texas power outages.

The Dallas Morning News. (February 2021). Texas power grid was ‘seconds or minutes’ from a total blackout that could have lasted months, ERCOT says.

The New York Times. (February 2021). No, Wind Farms Aren’t the Main Cause of the Texas Blackouts.

The Washington Post. (February 2021). Texas seceded from the nation’s power grid. Now it’s paying the price.

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