I moved from Austin to Denver just under two years ago. Austin is a great
city. Young, hip, great food, lots of outdoorsy stuff. But most of my free time is in the summer. So, I'd spend the fall, winter and spring flying here and there only getting glimpses of the wonders of Austin. Then when I'd return home for a long stretch – typically mid-June – temperatures would be above 100 degrees and wouldn't drop back down into something more civilized until it was time for me to head out again in late-September. So, I relocated to Denver where my free time overlapped with weather that is truly glorious.
So, imagine my shock – and the shock of my Austinite friends I left behind – when for the four days beginning February 15 it was warmer
at my home near Denver at 7500 feet than it was in Austin. A freak storm front – an Alberta Clipper, a bomb cyclone, a polar vortex, whatever name you choose – crashed down into the middle third of the country, plunging everyone into a once-in-a-decade-or-more deep freeze. In my 20 years in Austin, we cumulatively
received less than three inches of snow. This past week Austin got over a foot.
Texas is the country's energy capital, both in terms of greentech and
conventional power. It's by far the top U.S. state in terms of wind power generation, it is rapidly moving up the ranks for solar power, and everyone understands' that it reigns supreme in oil and natural gas.
The storm front seized up everything
. It coated wind turbines with ice, forcing 7GW—approximately 10% of Texas’s available grid--offline. It turned associated water that often occurs as part of natural gas production to ice, shutting in half of the state's production. Oil was similarly impacted, stopping some two-thirds of Texas’s output. Between these direct issues and follow-on ones – water coolant at nuclear power plants froze, forcing shutdowns; insufficient natural gas led to fuel shortages shutting down nearly 17GW--approximately 25% of Texas’s available grid; oil and power curtailments necessitated shut-downs of the bulk of Texas's refineries leading to mass gas station closures – some seven million Texans lost power. Some for days.
Anti-Green voices were quick to condemn the wind turbine issues as proof that greentech will never work. Anti-fossil fuel voices were quick to condemn conventional fossil-fuel thermal-power generation as broken beyond repair. Both are wrong. Deliberately, stupidly, hilariously wrong. What happened is a lot more basic.
Texas doesn't normally get winter, and so isn't winterized.
The technologies and equipment required to operate energy systems at temperatures below 20 degrees are not new. They have been used regularly for decades in places as far removed as Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, Peru, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia. They aren't technically difficult. They aren't overly expensive. What they are
is usually unnecessary in areas that never have winters. You're just not going to see things like heating elements embedded in the blades of wind turbines or insulation on natural gas pipes in places like Brazil, Sicily, Vietnam…or Texas.
And yet as hot as Texas gets, and as mild as Texas' winters normally are, it is not
a tropical location. Its climate zones span the range of desert, steppe, Mediterranean, and subtropical. Cold and snow can and do happen. Just not often. But apparently, it happens often enough that Texas now needs some basic winterizing. I've no doubt that Texas can manage this. Oklahoma, after all, does stuff like this as a matter of course.
Here's a link to by far the best article I've read on the hows and whys of what went wrong:
Deep in the heart of Texas’ collapsing power grid | Ars Technica