When it comes to electricity, Texas is isolated from the rest of the United States. When the state’s power system fails, that means trouble.
By Reynard Loki, Independent Media Institute
6 min read
It is impossible to know if Winter Storm Uri—which brutally raged across large swaths of the United States, Northern Mexico, Eastern Canada and the British Isles last week—is a consequence of climate change, but the frequency and intensity of extreme weather around the world are. And it serves as a reminder of how important it is that the U.S. has rejoined the Paris climate agreement. But for the millions of Texans who have had no electricity, many for several days, the storm has exposed another problem: Texas is the only state to have its own power grid. Because it is not connected to the nation’s two main power grids, it cannot receive energy from other parts of the country during power outages. That fact has proved to be deadly.
“Texan infrastructure has buckled. The problem is not, as some argue, that Texas has too many renewables,” according to the Economist. “Gas-fired plants and a nuclear reactor were hit, as well as wind turbines. Worse, Texas had too little capacity and its poorly connected grid was unable to import power from elsewhere.”
There is a solution that has been in the works for over a decade: the Tres Amigas SuperStation. Billed as “the first renewable energy market hub in the U.S.,” the proposed Tres Amigas seeks to unify the nation’s power system by linking North America’s three main electric transmission grids: the Eastern (Southwest Power Pool), Western (Western Electricity Coordinating Council) and Texas (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) networks. Proponents of the project argue that it will not only increase grid reliability across the nation but also support more rapid adoption of renewable energy.
Transmission & Distribution World, a news site covering the energy industry, calls the project a “first-of-its-kind power transmission hub … [that] will serve to improve power reliability and solve voltage and stability problems caused by the intermittent generation of renewable energy sources such as wind, and other renewable[s] such as solar and geothermal generation. It will have significant reactive power capability that can be controlled at each interconnection, thereby improving stability, transfer capability and transmission efficiency.”
According to the Tres Amigas website, the project—to be sited in Clovis, New Mexico, near the border between Texas and New Mexico—will provide the “first common interconnection of America’s three power grids to help the country achieve its renewable energy goals and facilitate the smooth, reliable and efficient transfer of green power from region to region.” Though the project has been hampered by a lack of financing and scale-backs, the crisis in Texas may help bring more support to it. In general, the crisis could lend support to President Joe Biden’s clean energy plan “to build the next generation of electric grid transmission and distribution,” which includes the establishment of a “technology-neutral Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard (EECES) for utilities and grid operators.”
When it was announced in 2009 that American Superconductor (ASMC), a Massachusetts-based energy infrastructure company, would provide the Tres Amigas project with superconducting wires for electrical distribution, ASMC founder and CEO Greg Yurek said, “This is a tremendous opportunity to help unify the United States power grid and achieve the nation’s renewable energy goals. He added, “The time has come to utilize the latest technologies to not only balance renewable energy flows to get more clean electricity to customers, but also to increase the reliability and security of our power grids. Tres Amigas will help achieve these important goals.” (AMSC has a minority equity interest in Tres Amigas amounting to $1.75 million in cash and AMSC stock.)
However, the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the state’s top utility regulator, “has shown little enthusiasm for participating” in the project, Kate Galbraith, energy reporter for the Texas Tribune, wrote last week. Galbraith, who served as the lead writer for the New York Times’ Green blog, points out that the reason that Texas has its own grid is to remain “out of the reach of federal regulators.” She writes: “In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules.”
A new public petition on Change.org is calling for Texas Governor Greg Abbott to end his state’s energy isolation by joining the Tres Amigas SuperStation and connecting Texas to the nation’s two main primary electric transmission grids. “As an independent energy grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) must balance its own energy production and consumption within the state,” states the petition, which was launched by Dallas resident Anil Raj. “Since Texas can not borrow energy from other states, and with a drastic curtail of energy supply due to the storm, Texas citizens must bear the brunt of the consequences of this failed governance with prolonged energy blackouts.”
Winter Storm Uri has devastated Texas, making a serious case for connecting Texas to the nation’s East and West grid connections. But the crisis in Texas is also a bellwether of what could happen in other parts of the country that are faced with aging energy infrastructure. The time is ripe for meaningful change. Over the next few months, Congress will deliberate over President Biden’s plans to revamp the nation’s energy structure, which will include an infrastructure spending blueprint that includes investments to upgrade the nation’s electrical grid. That plan will work to achieve Biden’s ambitious climate plan that started when he put the U.S. back into the Paris climate agreement.
Two of the president’s main objectives are in line with the agreement’s goals of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst impacts of climate change: ending fossil fuel emissions from power generation by 2035 and making the nation carbon-neutral by 2050. Considering that the U.S. is the world’s second-biggest source of global warming emissions after China, what happens here has the potential to change the future for the entire planet. Additionally, when it comes to the climate fight, other nations look to the U.S. for leadership in science-based policy and technological advancements like grid-scale battery storage and carbon capture and storage.
By several metrics, the nation’s energy portfolio is looking favorable toward climate resiliency, but there are caveats. As EFL contributor Elliott Negin, a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out in Truthout in 2019, “renewable electricity generation has nearly doubled over the last decade, and close to 90 percent of that expansion has come from wind and solar, which jumped more than fivefold.” He added, “If wind and solar maintain their exponential growth rate, the United States is on track to get all of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2050. Fulfilling that potential, however, will require two major advances: updating the rickety U.S. electricity grid and developing energy storage technologies that can enable the grid to incorporate more wind and solar power.”
“We are colliding with a future of extremes,” Alice Hill, who served as the senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told the New York Times. “We base all our choices about risk management on what’s occurred in the past, and that is no longer a safe guide.”
- Urge Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Public Utility Commission of Texas to connect the Texas power grid to the East and West interconnections to increase power reliability throughout the state.
Cause for concern…
“The 18,000 types of fish living in rivers make up a quarter of all vertebrate species,” reports Eric Roston for Bloomberg News. “After two centuries of industrial development, 23% of them are now threatened with extinction.”
- Almost a quarter of all freshwater fish species are in peril, thanks to humans (Eric Roston, Bloomberg News)
- 4 more states propose harsh new penalties for protesting fossil fuels (Alexander C. Kaufman, HuffPost)
- U.S. needs to brace itself for more deadly storms, experts say (Matthew Daly and Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press)
- Wind farms aren’t all ready for icing amid changing climate (Bobby Magill, Bloomberg Law)
- After pork giant was exposed for cruel killings, FBI pursued its critics (Lee Fang, The Intercept)
Round of applause…
“New legislation would ban all fracking in California by 2027, taking aim at the powerful oil and gas industry in the state already planning to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035,” reports Adam Beam for the Associated Press.
- California lawmakers propose ban on fracking by 2027 (Adam Beam, Associated Press)
- Biden’s EPA nominee must act on forests to be an environmental justice champion (Scot Quaranda, Earth | Food | Life via Truthout)
- White patriarchy won’t solve the climate crisis: Antiracist, feminist leadership is what we need right now (Jennie C. Stephens, Island Press)
- ‘Piecing together a broken heart’: Tribes rebuild territories they lost through the real estate market (Hallie Golden, The Guardian)
- This new KitKat is completely vegan (Andrea Romano, Travel + Leisure)
“You don’t need compassion running in your blood to understand that you can make a difference. You can take the very real compassion, consideration, and respect you already have for cats and dogs … and extend that to farm animals.” —John Oberg, Earth | Food | Life on NationofChange)
Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.
Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.
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