Experts warn US power grids will face added demand as severe weather accelerates

The huge winter storms plunged the South into an energy crisis this week, crippling electric grids and leaving millions of Americans without power amid dangerously cold temperatures.

The grid failures were most severe in Texas, where more than 4 million people woke up Tuesday morning to rolling blackouts. Separate regional grids in the Southwest and Midwest also faced serious strain, with Louisiana’s electric companies forced to implement blackouts as well. 

As The New York Times reports, analysts have begun to identify key factors behind the grid failures in Texas. Record-breaking cold weather spurred residents to crank up their electric heaters and pushed power demand beyond the worst-case scenarios that grid operators had planned for. At the same time, a large fraction of the state’s gas-fired power plants were knocked offline amid icy conditions, with some plants suffering fuel shortages as natural gas demand spiked. Many of Texas’ wind turbines also froze and stopped working.

The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country. Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions—as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.  

Measures that could help make electric grids more robust—such as fortifying power plants against extreme weather, or installing more backup power sources—could prove expensive. But as Texas shows, blackouts can be extremely costly, too. And, experts say, unless grid planners start planning for increasingly wild and unpredictable climate conditions, grid failures will happen again and again. Read the full story.