US power grids are vulnerable to extreme weather. Climate change may force us to upgrade

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Peririn

The central and southern U.S. continues to reel from a winter storm that brought snow, ice, and the coldest temperatures in decades. Millions of Texans woke up this morning still without power. Texas is the only state that operates its own power grid, and it hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand for heat. Dozens of people have died nationwide following this storm.  

California also has had its fair share of blackouts from wildfires and heatwaves. They’re all examples of how the country’s aging power grids can’t keep up with the growing number of weather disasters related to climate change.

Leah Stokes, an energy policy researcher and professor at UC Santa Barbara, says Texas’ grid failure is due to a breakdown in the state’s power infrastructure and an inability to invest in new energy sources.

“Texas has some of the worst energy efficiency policies in the country. … If we had more of that in Texas, then people would be in a lot safer situation right now,” says Stokes, who’s also author of “Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States.” 

Weatherizing homes is one common sense investment, she says. “If you have a very well insulated home that uses energy more efficiently, first of all, we wouldn't need as much electricity in the first place. And secondly, if it got cold and the power went out, your home wouldn't lose the heat as quickly.”

According to Stokes, one city in Texas was able to provide power for its residents: El Paso. That’s because the city’s grid is not connected to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a deregulated market that provides power for more than 26 million residents. 

“It's a competitive market and there isn't a lot of centralized planning to make sure that there's adequacy for power 365 days a year,” she says. ”If [Texas has power] scarcity, because their gas plants aren't working very well with the cold temperatures, they can't very easily import power from other places, because the grid is not very interconnected with other parts of the country.”

As the planet continues to warm, Stokes says extreme weather will cause more infrastructure strain. She uses the example of the heatwave that hit western states last summer and caused preemptive power shutoffs. 

“We've only warmed the planet by about one degrees centigrade so far. What's it going to be like when we continue on this trajectory? … What's going to happen when we keep having these horrible heat waves? We really have to look squarely at the challenge of climate change and how much it's stressing out our electricity infrastructure.”

Future energy sources

Stokes says misinformation about renewable energy sources have spread following Texas’ cold snap, blaming the power breakdown on frozen wind turbines. As it turns out, it was natural gas infrastructure that broke down. 

“There's been an assumption in the electricity world that somehow gas can be turned on at any moment and it's the most reliable source,” she says. “When we have extreme heat waves and a breakdown in the polar vortex leading to extreme cold events, that isn't true. Gas infrastructure can struggle to perform under these extreme events.“ 

Stokes says there are ways to make the power grid more resilient, such as burying power lines underground. But those can be costly ventures. 

Looking ahead, she says communities must reexamine how they use fossil fuels and maintain their infrastructure. 

“The irony is that these fossil fuels have caused climate change. But now climate change is making it impossible for them to even operate. … They just underscore how urgent it is for us to get off fossil fuels, because it's really destabilizing our infrastructure across the board.”