• Cold weather inflicts disaster on Texas, and blackouts lead to polarised blame game

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

Almost three million Texan households experienced a loss of electricity supply in mid-February (and other states were subsequently affected), with unusually cold weather making some power generation equipment inoperable just as demand for power surged. The effects of the cold were stark, author Michael Moorcock describing them vividly in The Spectator:

“Drivers, unused to ice, caused terrible multi-vehicle accidents. Ambulances could not get to emergencies. Helicopters were sparse. Patients remain at risk, without power. Many cannot call for help because they have lost internet and chargers. Few pipes were lagged. Treatment plants backed up, poisoning the mains supply. Foul water everywhere, inside and out. In Austin, hospitals had to get water delivered by fire engine, churches were distributing bottled water and our local supermarket, faced with a power cut which shut down the cash registers, simply gave the food away and closed the store. Everyone ran out of milk. And single malts. Other shops, unable to refrigerate stock, presented customers with glorious bunches of flowers. Mattress stores opened their premises to anyone needing shelter. Millions lost water and were driven out of their homes by burst pipes. Elderly people and children were killed in fires or simply died of hypothermia in their beds.”

A total of 46 GW of generation capacity was incapacitated, 30 GW being from gas, coal and nuclear sources, and 16 GW from wind turbines. Amongst the various causes were a water cooling system for the South Texas Nuclear Power Station being put offline, cooling systems for coal-fired plants and natural gas pipelines and wellheads freezing up, and wind turbines being encased in ice (when technology exists to ‘winterise’ them). Opinion has been sharply divided following the blackouts, with the Financial Times publishing an article entitled “Wind power is not to blame for Texas blackout” and USA Today countering with “Renewables do play a role in grid problems”. Perhaps the most balanced view came from Dr Joshua Rhodes, at the University of Texas at Austin, who tweeted that there was “no single resource to blame for this”, though the USA Today article claimed that although some coal and natural gas plants went offline, output from coal-fired power plants increased by 47%, and output from gas-fired plants 450%, while wind dropped from providing 42% of the state’s electricity on February 7 to 8% on February 11.

What all sides appear to agree on is that a contributing factor was the state’s grid being relatively independent, limiting the ability to import electricity at a time of severe need. Technical reports will take some months to appear, but will provide interesting reading when available.