Texas faced record-low temperatures this February, with freezing conditions leading to the state’s electric grid operator losing control of the power supply, leaving millions with no power. With rolling blackouts extending from hours to days, lawmakers began calling for investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), with residents demanding accountability for the disaster.
Analysts identified that the record-breaking cold weather saw people increase the temperature of their electric heaters, therefore pushing power demand to levels the grid operator had not accounted for. Additionally, icy conditions meant many of the state’s gas-fired power plants were knocked offline, and wind turbines prevented from turning due to ice.
The winter storm saw a temporary halt to building work in the region. Speaking to Engineering News-Record, Phil Thoden, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors Austin Chapter, explained that weather days are usually built into commercial projects, but the freeze brought up a different set of challenges than contractors are used to in Texas. “There will be ripple effects that will impact construction, just in terms of the ongoing delays due to weather,” he said.
In the Austin American-Statesman, Vaike O'Grady, regional director for housing market tracker Zonda, commented: "Bad weather is always tough on the homebuilding industry. In this case, we're dealing with never-before-seen temperatures that will no doubt cause widespread damage. Unfortunately, most job sites will have had to shut down. That means delays in new home starts as well as challenges in homes getting completed for home buyers."
The far-reaching effects served as a wake-up call for power systems across the US. Of course, electric grids can be engineered to more than adequately handle a broad range of severe weather conditions, but only if operators can predict potential dangers and prepare for every eventuality. It has raised bigger questions surrounding the issue of climate change and the weather conditions that can result. Extreme weather events, coupled with historical systems not designed to cope with them, present the risk of additional failures of epic proportions in the coming years.
In The New York Times, Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University, said: “It’s essentially a question of how much insurance you want to buy. What makes this problem even harder is that 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.”
While climate change means the state is getting warmer, research shows that Arctic warming is weakening the high-level air current that circles the northern latitudes and usually holds back the polar vortex. In short, cold air is increasingly escaping to the south, resulting in blasts of extreme cold weather conditions.
Preparations for these changes are costly but necessary. A recent study suggested that the southeast US will need 35% more electricity capacity by 2035 due to climate change. It also said that such an increase in capacity requirements will require additional costs of $31bn over the next 30 years.
“We need to decarbonize our power systems so that climate change doesn’t keep getting worse, but we also need to adapt to changing conditions at the same time, said Emily Grubert, an infrastructure expert at Georgia Tech. “And the latter alone is going to be very costly. We can already see that the systems we have today aren’t handling this very well.”
As the events in Texas confirm, the only certainty we have when it comes to weather conditions is uncertainty. The sooner lawmakers and industry leaders embrace that there is no such thing as stability from year-to-year, and push aside any skepticism surrounding climate change, they will be willing to make the necessary investments that provide stability for businesses and residents across the US.
PRS in Texas
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Operating in Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, PRS USA is actively recruiting for public and private sector roles to help our clients complete a series of high-profile construction projects. For more information about how we can help secure a position or find the right professional, contact Chris McCay on 281.779.4186 or email Chris.McCay@prsjobs.com.