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Finding Resiliency Through the 2021 Winter Storm

by Stephanie Phelan
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resilient tree in storm

The brutal winter storm that many Americans faced early last week has brought us to our feet –  eyes wide and ears open. Eager to know what is going on, how we can change it, and how to better prepare ourselves for future weather conditions. 

people at snowy lakeThe record breaking temperatures, precipitation and ice storms that left millions without power in the freezing cold spiked a chain of events. This included frozen equipment, deadly tornadoes, water and infrastructure issues. Not to mention the severe grid resiliency issues several states faced, especially Texas. 

The worst U.S. power outages were in Texas, affecting more than 4 million homes and businesses. Four million people lost power in Mexico as well. More than 250,000 people also lost power across parts of Appalachia, and another 250,000 were without electricity following an ice storm in northwest Oregon. This is all according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outage reports.

That’s over 8.5 million people total without power, in freezing temperatures.

A Record-breaking Winter

The National Weather Service was “very surprised how rapidly this storm intensified … and at the time of night when most people are at home and in bed, it creates a very dangerous situation”. In reality, this entire catastrophe was extremely surprising – leaving meteorologists, scientists, climate experts and government officials all in shock. 

ice on branchesAround February 14th, 2021 – some areas of Texas reached between 10 and 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In the beginning of February, the average temperature in Texas was around 72 degrees. NOAA Climate Data, which measures variations in temperature during a 30 year period – will release the “new normal” weather conditions for 1991-2020 in May of 2021. In the meantime, the data shown from 1981-2010 proves the “normals” in Texas during February for these years were 55 degrees Fahrenheit (average temperature) and 2.02 (average precipitation). 

In February 2021, there were disastrous weather conditions: temperatures, dew points and precipitation levels in many regions were all extremely out of the “normal range”. Even more shockingly, these weather measurements were less similar to records from earlier that month – and MORE similar to the weather conditions that caused the Great Arctic Outbreak and record low of all time in 1899! At that time: Florida reached 2 degrees, Dallas reached 8 degrees, and Atlanta reached 9 degrees Fahrenheit. 

During the week of 02/14-02/20 the average temperature around Austin, TX was 27 degrees Fahrenheit  (a LOW of 0 degrees) with an average Dew Point of 20, and average Precipitation around 1.20. By just comparing these numbers to ones from earlier that month, one can see the extreme difference between temperatures, precipitation, and dew points. All which caused ice to form quickly in areas of Texas, that have rarely seen ice before. 

The Independent Grid System of Texas

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid – said “the frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies had caused higher-than-normal power generation outages”. Soon after, additional failures worsened outages. 

Texas open signLater, ERCOT officials clarified that the problems with the natural gas system and wind turbines were primarily responsible for challenges and power outages that residents faced. Keep in mind that it is very uncommon for wind turbines to freeze. They typically work in a wide range from -4 degrees fahrenheit to 104 degrees fahrenheit. “In Northern Europe, wind power operates very reliably in even colder temperatures, including the upper Arctic regions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.” Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex in the U.K., told Newsweek

Let’s take a look at the facts we know:

  • Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. that operates on its own independent electric grid, covering about 75% of the state. This grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
  • The rest of the contiguous United States’ power grids are part of either the Western Interconnect grid or the Eastern Interconnect, putting them under control of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
  • Since the majority of other states are using an interconnected grid system, we may not face similar resiliency issues that Texas did. But, unfortunately, we all have the potential to face extreme weather conditions. 

How We Can Overcome This?

A Rolling Stone article asks the rather blunt, yet cumbersome, question “Could the Texas Ice Storm be an indicator of America’s future weather conditions?”. Elon Musk appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience just a few days before these severe weather conditions in Texas. The 3+ hour conversation covered everything from his portfolio of businesses, future plans, and Elon talking about the wonders of the Lone Star State. Both Rogan and Musk have recently moved to Austin. On the podcast, Musk said that Austin, TX is going to be the biggest boomtown that America has seen in 50 years, at least.” This city may become the “hotspot” for the most empowering and transformative intellectuals of our time.

man standing in autumn city So what can we learn from earlier this month? For those who don’t live in Texas or any of the other areas affected, there’s still some perspective changes occurring. Our weather conditions are still rapidly evolving, and our climate crisis is still developing.

Some studies say the warming Arctic might be causing a “wavy” jet stream that is pushing Arctic air further south, into places like Texas. But given the chaotic complexity of weather systems recently, it’s hard to attribute this entirely to climate change.  Even scientist are shocked by the unpredictability of planet Earth. But we still have the option to fight against the changes occurring – through sustainability, education and human impact. Because as humans, we have the necessary tools to excel the process of regeneration and reverse some of  the destruction we’ve caused. 

After the massive power outages from the storm, Texas officials requested 60 generators from FEMA and planned to prioritize hospitals and nursing homes. The state opened 35 shelters to more than 1,000 occupants, the agency said. As of today, over 10 days after the the initial outages – there are still 8,500 homes without power in Texas. The initial numbers decreased drastically, ERCOT and other officials handled the situation as well as they were equipped to handle it. But one thing we do know, is that our world is poorly equipped for the changes that come with a rapidly warming climate. Some gas plants and pipelines that power the grid are not built to withstand cold, if it doesn’t get cold in the area often. But they should be built for extreme conditions, just in case. This should be the new standard. 

As Jesse Jenkins, a systems engineer at Princeton University told the New York Times: “We’re now in a world where, especially with climate change, the past is no longer a good guide to the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”

Supplying Diverse Areas

Many research outposts in Antarctica, which has the harshest cold-weather climate on Earth, are 100 percent powered by renewables. Renewable energy is still an answer, one of the many answers. All areas of the world can benefit from an Energy Mix. 

The Solutions Project has released this interactive map that shows the renewable energy mix of the future. There are also maps on Energy.gov showing the potentials of specific renewables, such as wind (offshore and land based).

Texas 2050 Energy Mix

Another answer lies within reformation of our federal emergency assistance program – or supplemental assistance if states decide to work off an independent grid system. If you or a loved one was affected by this winter storm, please read this article for further assistance. It’s always important to know what local organizations are working in your area to give back, we never know when we may need a helping hand.

Above all – what we can do is: research, help our community, give back to the movements and industries we support – and fight this change together. 

 

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