As Deb Haaland, President Biden’s choice for Interior secretary, heads toward a showdown vote, the department she would head is moving ahead on environmental policies.
Texas has refused to join interstate electrical grids and railed against energy regulation. Now it’s having to answer to millions of residents who were left without power in last week’s snowstorm.
After a public outcry from people like Scott Willoughby, whose exorbitant electric bill is soon due, Gov. Greg Abbott said lawmakers should ensure Texans “do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills” caused by the storm.
When post-truth politics meets energy policy.
Texas is now entering its third day of widespread power outages and, although supplies of electricity are improving, they remain well short of demand. For now, the state’s power authority suggests that, rather than restoring power, grid operators will try to shift from complete blackouts to rolling ones. Meanwhile, the state’s cold weather is expected to continue for at least another day. How did this happen?
To understand what’s going on in Texas, and how things got so bad, you need quite a bit of arcane knowledge—including everything from weather and history to the details of grid structure and how natural gas contracts are organized. We’ve gathered details on as much of this as possible, and we also talked to grid expert Jeff Dagle at Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL). What follows is an attempt to organize and understand an ongoing, and still somewhat chaotic, situation.
Why is Texas so much worse off?
While other states have seen customers lose power, Texas has been hit the hardest, with far more customers losing power for substantially longer.
The state’s massive blackouts are the result of a failure to insure against extreme weather.
Power outages, natural gas shortages and icy conditions made it hard for automakers, retailers and delivery carriers to operate across much of the South and Midwest.
It’s becoming harder for the U.S. to ignore the very real effects of global climate change — and despite the efforts of naysayers, it’s not a push to renewables that’s to blame for the outages sweeping the nation. It’s the country’s energy infrastructure.
Severe weather conditions caused by global warming have now caused massive blackouts across some of the largest cities in the United States. The inability of the U.S. power grid to withstand the stresses caused by extreme weather events show that the nation needs a massive investment plan to upgrade energy infrastructure in an effort to make it more resilient.
These problems are now painfully apparent to the 29 million residents of Texas who are now subject to rolling blackouts caused by the frigid weather sweeping across the country.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said it had “entered emergency conditions and initiated rotating outages at 1:25 a.m. today,” in a statement. The Texas grid shed 10.5 gigawatts of load — or enough to power 2 million homes at its peak.
“Extreme weather conditions caused many generating units – across fuel types – to trip offline and become unavailable,” the energy provider said in a statement.
Part of the problem lies with natural gas generators that supply much of the power to the grid in Texas, according to Princeton professor, Jesse Jenkins, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment.
Citing a market participant, Jenkins noted on Twitter that roughly 26 gigawatts of thermal energy is offline because natural gas is being diverted to provide heat instead of power. Only about 4 gigawatts of wind is offline because of icing, Jenkins noted.
The current blackouts have nothing to do with renewables and everything to do with cold weather slowing down natural gas production because of freeze offs and spiking demand for heating at the same time.
As Dr. Emily Grubert, an assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and, by courtesy, of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, noted, the problem is more of a total systems issue than one associated with renewable power.
“Let us be absolutely clear: if there are grid failures today, it shows the existing (largely fossil-based) system cannot handle these conditions either,” Grubert wrote on Twitter. “These are scary, climate change-affected conditions that pose extreme challenges to the grid. We are likely to continue to see situations like this where our existing system cannot easily handle them. Any electricity system needs to make massive adaptive improvements.”
Renewable energy and energy storage can potentially provide a solution to the problem and help contribute to a more resilient grid. Residential energy developer Swell Energy raised $450 million in financing late last year to begin development of several projects across three states that would pair distributed, residential solar energy generation with battery storage to create what are called virtual power plants that can ease stress on energy grids in times of increased demand.
“Utilities are increasingly looking to distributed energy resources as valuable ‘grid edge’ assets,” said Suleman Khan, CEO of Swell Energy, in a statement, at the time of the announcement. “By networking these individual homes and businesses into virtual power plants, Swell is able to bring down the cost of ownership for its customers and help utilities manage demand across their electric grids.”
Other companies, like Evolve Energy or Griddy, try to help consumers manage costs by charging them wholesale rates for power. Those companies can only be economical when the rates for wholesale power are low. Right now, with demand for power skyrocketing, prices for energy in the ERCOT have surged above $5,000 per MW and hit the $9,000 cap in many nodes, according to Bloomberg Energy reporter Javier Bias.
The blackouts in Texas today and in California in January show that the current grid in the United States needs an overhaul. Whether it’s heavily regulated markets like California or a free market like Texas, current policy can’t stop the weather from wreaking havoc and putting people’s lives at risk.
A broad move away from coal power was an important factor in pushing down global greenhouse gas emissions, researchers said, and could help accelerate a shift toward renewable energy.
Automating and controlling devices and energy usage in homes has potentially become a bit easier thanks to an integration between Span, the startup making a digital fusebox replacement, and Amazon’s voice recognition interface, Alexa.
Through the Alexa integration, homeowners using Span’s electrical panels can turn on or off any circuit or appliance in their home, monitor which appliances are using power, and determine which electrical source is generating the most power for a home.
Questions like “Alexa, ask Span what is consuming the most power right now?” will get a response. The Alexa integration opens up new opportunities for home owners to integrate their devices and appliances, because of the connection to the home’s wiring, according to Span chief executive, Arch Rao.
Rao sees the Alexa integration as a way for Span to become the home automation hub that tech companies have been promising for a long time. “There are far too many devices in the hoe today… with too many apps,” Rao said. “The advantage we have is, once installed, we’re persistent in the home and connected to everything electric in the home for the next 30 to 40 years.”
In addition to monitoring energy usage and output, Alexa commands could turn off the power for any device or switch that a homeowner has programmed into the system.
“The most material way to state it is, our panel is providing a virtual interface to the home in the build environment,” said Rao. “We’re building a very capable edge device… it becomes sort of a true aggregation point and nerve center to give you real-time visibility and control.”
Going forward, Rao envisions Span integrating with other devices like water sensors, fire alarm sensors, and other equipment to provide other types of controls that could be useful for insurers like Munich Re.
With the $20 million that the company raised, Rao intends to significantly increase sales and marketing efforts working through partners like Munich Re and Amazon to get Span’s devices into as many homes as possible.
The company has significant tailwinds thanks to home automation and energy efficiency upgrade efforts that are now wending their way through Washington, but could mean subsidies for the deployment of technology’s like Span’s electric panels.
Rao also intends to boost headcount at Span. The company currently has 35 employees and Rao would like to see that number double to roughly 70 by the end of the year.
Span’s growth is part of a broad movement in home technologies toward increasingly sustainable options. In many cases that’s the penetration of electrical appliances in things like water heaters and stove tops, but also the integration of electric vehicle charging stations, home energy storage units, and other devices that push energy generation and management to the edge of electricity grids.
“It’s cutting that pipe that’s bringing natural gas to the home and bringing all electric everything… as consumers are continuing to cut the cord on fossils, your existing home system is not efficient. That’s one ecosystem of products where we are starting to see partnership opportunities,” Rao said. “When it comes to applications like monitoring the health of your appliances… and services to the home. Having the data that we provide will be unprecedented.”
Earlier this week, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) released figures on the new generating capacity that’s expected to start operating over the course of 2021. While plans can obviously change, the hope is that, with its new additions, the grid will look radically different than it did just five years ago. This includes the details, where a new nuclear plant may be started up, although it will be dwarfed by the capacity of new batteries. But the big picture is that, even ignoring the batteries, about 80 percent of the planned capacity additions will be emission-free.
The EIA’s accounting shows that just under 40 Gigawatts of capacity will be placed on the grid during 2021, but there are a number of caveats to this. First and foremost is the inclusion of batteries, which account for over 10 percent of that figure (4.3GW). While batteries may look like short-term generating capacity from the perspective of “can this put power on the grid?”, they’re obviously not actually a net source of power. Typically, they’re used to smooth over short-term fluctuations in supply or demand rather than a steady source of power.
Still, given the rarity of grid-scale batteries even a few years ago, 4.3GW of them is striking.
A last-ditch effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling is underway.
Students and recent graduates struggle to get hired as the oil industry cuts tens of thousands of jobs, some of which may never come back.
After a year when climate-related disasters seemed to become the norm, the team will be monitoring a 2021 that is pivotal for the world.
Exxon Mobil is struggling to find its footing as demand for oil and gas falls and world leaders and businesses pledge to fight climate change.
The comptroller’s threat to pull billions from fossil fuel investments is a big victory for climate activists.
It’s not just party balloons. A huge Siberian production plant is expected to reshape the market for a gas that’s essential to many critical industries.
Ellen Brennan Reiche, 23, and Samantha Frances Brooks, 27, were accused of tampering with train tracks to disrupt signals and possibly cause derailments, according to a criminal complaint.
Congress should raise the royalty rates on federal lands.
Also this week: Solutions for cities, and a Times investigation
FTI, a global consulting firm, helped design, staff and run organizations and websites funded by energy companies that can appear to represent grass-roots support for fossil-fuel initiatives.
Amid growing alarm about methane’s role in driving global warming, a Canadian firm has begun selling a service to detect even relatively small leaks. At least two rivals are on the way.
Canada’s oil patch has nearly 100,000 suspended wells, neither active nor capped, and they’re a worrying source of planet-warming methane.
After the candidate called for a “transition” away from oil and gas, executives said the country would need fossil fuels for decades to come.
With the price of a barrel stuck around $40 and no recovery in sight, companies are combining to cut costs and ride out the pandemic.
The oil giant’s takeover of Noble Energy gives it a foothold in an emerging energy hot spot: the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The negotiations will be their first on nonsecurity issues in three decades but officials do not expect them to lead to peace talks.
A group of more than 60 donors is urging Joe Biden to renounce advisers with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
While BP and other European companies invest billions in renewable energy, Exxon and Chevron are committed to fossil fuels and betting on moonshots.
Daniel Yergin’s “The New Map” is a comprehensive look at the world of energy, its past, present and future.
At a meeting last year, industry leaders contradicted public claims that emissions of climate-warming methane are under control
Evidence that the Russian opposition leader was attacked with a military-grade nerve agent has placed new pressures on the German chancellor.
When demand exceeded supply in a recent heat wave, electricity stored at businesses and even homes was called into service. With proper management, batteries could have made up for an offline gas plant.
The United States needs allies. Punishing Berlin over a Russian gas pipeline is a needless provocation.
Three U.S. senators and the Trump administration want to halt Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline by imposing sanctions on a Baltic port that is supplying the project.
Some energy executives are pleased that the former vice president is not calling for a fracking ban and said they could work with him.
With a $5 billion play for Noble Energy, the oil giant is set to acquire properties around the world for a relative bargain. Other companies might make similar moves.
Burning Gas and Poisoning the Air
Scientists expect emissions, driven by fossil fuels and agriculture, to continue rising rapidly.
Oil and gas companies are hurtling toward bankruptcy, raising fears that wells will be left leaking planet-warming pollutants, with cleanup cost left to taxpayers.
Defeats at three projects reflect increasingly sophisticated legal challenges, shifting economics and growing demands by states to fight climate change.
The acquisition of a gas pipeline is Berkshire Hathaway’s largest in years, quelling investor anxiety about its recent drought of deal-making.
As coal declines and wind and solar energy rise, some are pushing to limit the use of natural gas, but utilities say they are not ready to do so.
The natural gas project would have crossed the Appalachian Trail. Dominion Energy, one of the pipeline’s two partners, also announced the sale of its gas transmission and storage assets.
The company helped turn the United States into a gas exporter but became known for an illegal scheme to suppress the price of oil and gas leases.
Businesses were reopening in recent weeks and oil prices had climbed north of $40 a barrel before coronavirus infections accelerated in the state.
The energy giant said its oil and gas assets were worth less, a move reflecting broad changes in the industry.
The company, which has said it could file for bankruptcy protection, helped turn the U.S. into a gas exporter but became known for an illegal scheme to suppress the price of oil and gas leases.
The Fed should not be directing taxpayer money to further entrench the carbon economy.
Businesses in the United States, Israel and other countries were planning to invest billions in export terminals. Now, those projects are being canceled or delayed.