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Texas energy disaster prompts Op-Ed from CCEE professors

The following Op-ed, written by Drs. Jeremiah Johnson and Joseph DeCarolis was published Sunday, February 21st by the Raleigh News & Observer, and the Charlotte Observer.

Jeremiah Johnson is an Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering, who uses systems-based methods to assess the environmental impacts of changes in our power system.
Joseph DeCarolis is a Professor in Environmental Engineering. His primary research focus is on the development and application of energy system optimization models, which can help guide the transition to carbon-free energy systems.


Texas is in the dark. Could that happen here?

Many Texans have been without electricity for days as the power system operator struggles to bring its customers back online. North Carolinians may be asking themselves, “Could that happen here?”

To understand our risk, we need to be clear about the causes of the Texas disaster. Power systems are designed to meet the hours of highest demand, which has typically been hot summer days when people are running air conditioners. But in some regions, winter heating is driving those peaks in electricity demand. In Texas, the bitter cold spell sent electricity demand soaring far beyond previous records. In addition, the grid was not designed to handle these extremes. The natural gas system was the biggest contributor to this failure with frozen delivery infrastructure reducing fuel supply. This supply reduction was exacerbated by the need to prioritize natural gas for home heating over electricity supply at a time of record demand. So when their governor sought to blame renewable energy for this catastrophe, his comments were disingenuous at best. Solar is a bit player in Texas and the unavailability of any wind turbines is minor compared to these thermal plant outages.

So can this happen in North Carolina? Certainly, but we do have a few factors working in our favor. While over half of the electricity in Texas comes from natural gas, our region has a more diverse mix of electricity sources. We also have a greater reserve margin than Texas – meaning that we have more “extra” power plant capacity to serve as a buffer. Perhaps most importantly, while Texas is largely an isolated grid, we are part of a large interconnected network spanning the Dakotas to Maine to Florida. This means that we can rely on our neighbors for a bit of help in meeting peak demand.

So are we in the clear? Definitely not. Our power system is increasingly hitting its highest demand during winter heating hours, and we have roughly the same share of households using electricity for heating as Texas. Also, some long term plans seek to build a bevy of new natural gas plants that could result in increased exposure to fuel disruptions, which is particularly acute given our limited access to natural gas supplies. And cold snaps are not the only risk that we face. Both our coastal and inland communities are vulnerable to electricity supply disruptions from hurricanes. Power plants and energy infrastructure in low lying coastal areas are susceptible to flooding, erosion, and saltwater intrusion. In addition, we face a 2 to 5°F average temperature increase in North Carolina by the middle of the century, which will increase our demand for power-hungry air conditioning and place additional stress on our existing power system.

We hope for a quick and safe return to normalcy for our friends in Texas. When the crisis thaws and we begin to assess the damage, we will recognize that this was a failure of both imagination and preparation. To build resilient infrastructure systems, we must be ready to put ideology aside and focus on infrastructure that meets our need for reliable power under extreme events. North Carolina is no exception.