The Guardian Weekly
Texas power crisis declared a major disaster
Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Texas last weekend, after the state suffered widespread power blackouts and water shortages during a deep freeze. The declaration made federal funding available to individuals across the state, including assistance for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans for uninsured property losses. Though many in Texas had power restored the state was left reeling from the winter storm that pummelled its power grid and left millions without heat, food or safe drinking water.
When California experienced power blackouts last year during wildfires and a summer “heat storm”, Republican lawmakers from Texas were quick to deride the coastal state’s energy policies. “California is now unable to perform even basic functions of civilisation, like having reliable electricity,” tweeted senator Ted Cruz during the recordbreaking heatwave in August.
Those Republicans, including Cruz, had to swallow their words last week as a massive winter storm took out the Lone Star state’s power grid, leaving nearly 4 million people without electricity and heat. The crises in California and Texas were different, in scale and severity. But experts say the power outages in both states make one thing clear: neither is prepared for the chaos of the climate crisis.
“There’s a lot of similarities between what happened in Texas and California,” said Roshi Nateghi, a researcher at Purdue University who studies infrastructure sustainability and resilience. “In both cases, you had an extreme climate or weather event. And in both cases, the states were not prepared.”
Over the past two decades, across the US, severe weather has been the main cause of sustained power outages, Nateghi said. An analysis of Department of Energy data published in September found weather-related power outages are up by 67% since 2000. Climate change is expected to continue fuelling hotter heatwaves, more bitter winter storms and more ferocious hurricanes. Power plants, generators and electrical lines are not designed to withstand the catastrophes to come. And the fossil fuels both states rely on to power these faulty systems are driving the climate crisis.
“We’re already seeing the effects of climate change,” said Sascha von Meier, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “There will be more of this and it will get worse.”
California’s power system is facing pressure on two fronts: delivery and demand. For the past few years, the state’s large electricity providers have shut off power when its equipment is at risk of setting off wildfires. The companies have said that updating their grids will take years.
Republicans across the US seized on the power outages to deride California’s climate and green energy policies. But the issue wasn’t that California couldn’t produce enough power but that it didn’t invest in batteries to save and store power, Von Meier said. Texas, like California last year, failed to plan for the extreme weather it is now facing. And, as in California, its equipment was overdue for upgrades.
As the storm hit, the state’s grid operators found estimates of how much energy residents would require were off. At the same time, officials had allowed several power plants to go offline. As temperatures dropped, households used more and more energy to keep warm – triggering blackouts. By last Monday, the icy conditions also disabled power plants.
In a state that relies heavily on natural gas for power generation, infrastructure wasn’t equipped to withstand heavy snow and cold temperatures – wells froze, and the power outages made it impossible to pump gas. “You need electricity to generate electricity, which really causes these disasters to escalate,” Nateghi said.
In Texas and California, power issues have endangered elderly, poor and disabled residents most. When PG&E started preemptively shutting off electricity during the 2019 fire season, many disabled people found themselves in a precarious situation after medical devices lost power and medications that required refrigeration began to go bad.
To address these issues, scientists and advocacy groups are increasingly pushing for a decentralised power system that empowers communities to generate and store their own energy, using renewable sources – while investing in infrastructure that will allow regions to share power when disaster strikes.
Microgrids would allow communities to generate and ration their own electricity, Von Meier said. “A neighbourhood could essentially operate as a small power island,” she said.
Von Meier herself loses power often due to shutoffs, and was without electricity at her home in Bay Area hills for nearly 24 hours last autumn during fire season. “With a local grid, rather than having these very clumsy rotating power outages, where an entire neighbourhood gets shut up completely, our neighbourhood could have kept at least the basics running,” she said.
“What’s happened in California and Texas are warning signs,” said Nateghi. “These are signs we need to act now, and rethink our systems.”
‘There will be more of this and it will get worse’ Sascha von Meier University of California, Berkeley
‘We need to advance bit by bit … 50% of this region depends on mining’ Arturo Rivera Wong Coahuila coal mine owner
The men on the midnight shift smoked cigarettes and cracked jokes in the glow of their helmet lights as they prepared to go underground. They were loading safety equipment and coils of pipe on to wheelbarrows, in readiness for a second shift due to start working later that week.
“We’re reactivating the industry,” said Arturo Rivera Wong, who had just taken on 40 more workers at the mine he owns in the scrublands of the border state of Coahuila.
As the climate crisis worsens and clean energy prices plunge, governments around the world have been weaning their economies off coal and other fossil fuels. Mexico is moving in the opposite direction.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has unveiled plans to buy nearly 2m tonnes of thermal coal from small producers like Rivera. He also plans to reactivate a pair of coal-fired plants on the Texas border, which were being wound down as natural gas and renewables took a more prominent role in Mexico’s energy mix.
Not only is López Obrador betting big on fossil fuels, he is also curtailing clean energy. The populist president has promoted a vision of energy sovereignty, in which state-run bodies – the oil company Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) – pump petroleum and generate electricity. Private players, which have heavily invested in clean energy, are relegated to a secondary role in López Obrador’s vision – while emissions and climate commitments are an afterthought.
The CFE’s current investment plan forgoes clean energy projects entirely. And a bill for overhauling the electricity industry that was recently sent to Congress would force the CFE to purchase power from its own facilities, including coal plants, before renewables. López Obrador has said his government will refurbish the CFE’s hydroelectric installations, which would allow Mexico to meet its climate commitments of generating 35% of its electricity via renewables. But to make its case for prioritising fossil fuels and re-establishing a state-run electricity industry, the government has repeatedly cast doubt on the dependability of renewables. And despite increasingly powerful hurricanes, droughts and other extreme weather, it has stayed silent on the climate crisis.
In the past, Mexico has been a climate leader. It was the first developing country to deliver its climate action plan ahead of the Paris agreement, but such ambitions are now treated with crushing lack of interest. “The Paris agreement has zero relevance to anything they’re talking about in the electric sector,” said Jeremy Martin, vice-president for energy and sustainability at the Institute of the Americas.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic heaps misery on Mexico, López Obrador has continued to pour funding into Pemex and hasn’t slowed construction on a massive $8bn oil refinery.
López Obrador has also showed a marked enthusiasm for coal, which produces roughly 9.5% of Mexico’s electricity. In October, he travelled to the coal mining regions of Coahuila, to announce the reactivation of the CFE’s coal-fired plants. He called clean energy a “sophism” to prioritise private over public enterprise.
The president’s commitment to coal was welcome relief for miners like Rivera. Mining almost ground to a halt in 2019 when the CFE stopped purchasing amid plans to transition to cleaner energy sources. About 10,000 miners lost their jobs. To stay afloat, Rivera shut down the mine, and sold 20 cows and his house. Some of his employees were forced to scrounge for nuts. His company now extracts 700 tonnes of coal a week from his mine.
As the plant reopens more furnaces, Rivera expects to ramp up production to 1,900 tonnes a week. “What does the president want? To reactivate the economy because 50% of this region depends on mining,” Rivera said.
Rivera didn’t deny the climate crisis. “We definitely believe in climate change and alternate forms of producing energy have to be pursued. But we need to advance bit by bit,” he said. Workers preparing to reopen the coal mines seemed more worried about work than the climate.
“They say they’re no longer going to buy coal because of these solar lamps and stuff like that,” said Luis Alberto García, a 15-year veteran miner. “But I hope we can always sell coal because we make more money from it.”