Could Batteries Have Helped in Texas’ Electrogeddon?

War planners have long recommended battery backup for solar, wind, and natural gas

Body sledding in Houston yesterday. Photo: Mark Felix/AFP/Getty

The Arctic blast affecting 150 million Americans across 14 states has revealed that solar and wind, backed up by batteries, aren’t yet a solution for powering our towns and cities, and neither are fossil fuels, which have been immobilized by iced-over rigs, fuel lines, and other equipment.

On the third day of the electrogeddon, some 3.8 million people have been without electricity, and the image suggests an extreme weather-stressed future for which the United States appears likely to require new energy, living, and supply chain systems. In prior years, swaths of the country have been beset by hurricanes, massive fires, and prolonged drought. Now, extraordinary cold is added to the unfolding catalog of alarming weather, which many researchers blame on climate change.

For a decade and longer, entrepreneurs and researchers have spoken of backing up wind and solar with huge collections of lithium-ion batteries that could store and deliver electricity when the wind was not blowing and the sun not shining. Such batteries could also back up natural gas systems, storing and supplying electricity during times of peak demand. But in the case of the current cold snap, if they were not equipped with the right management system, such batteries likely would have failed: Charging below freezing, you can permanently damage the battery unless it is heated up first. More pertinent, the utilities would require next-generation grid batteries capable of long duration, not current systems that typically last just four hours.

The cold toyed with the region’s man-made infrastructure, which was engineered for much warmer weather. It froze half of Texas’ prodigious wind turbine system, the nation’s largest, alone amounting to about an eighth of that state’s total power supply. It also froze oil rigs and lines producing a million barrels of oil a day, along with the associated natural gas.

In Texas, California, Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere, the question is how far to go to adapt to such weather events. A large number of local residents and governments will be tempted to chalk off the freeze, for instance, to a freak and still-rare Arctic blast and push back against any ambitious adaptation efforts, just as attempts to change living patterns against California’s fires and Florida’s floods have more or less gone nowhere. In an editorial, the conservative Wall Street Journal blamed the whole electrogeddon on liberals who wouldn’t let enough coal be burned.

But this is what risk analysts and actuaries are for — to figure out, in new circumstances, what the chances are of a freak event recurring. “There likely needs to be a new risk calculation put into the planning analysis and market design that accounts for a changing climate and equity,” said Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. “Of course, that type of algorithm also has to contend with politics, which make the math more tricky.”

The freeze has thrown people’s inner gyroscopes off kilter: If they chose to yesterday, kids could have sledded in El Paso, Texas. Cities and towns in Mississippi needed serious snowplows — but nobody had one. Amazon, forever attempting to show off its Herculean brawn, actually stopped delivering in some areas of Texas.

Texas officials, famous for dissing the allegedly meek in other states, got scared. In downtown Dallas, office skyscrapers were asked to turn off nonessential lights last night to save electricity. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner, writing on Twitter, asked people to avoid using heavy appliances and to lower their thermostats.

Batteries do have a role in the future of extreme weather, but researchers will have to take into account protection against almost any manner of possible weather. “Dealing with weather extremes like this (and like California experienced last summer) will be an increasingly difficult challenge for grid operators as the effects of climate change intensify,” said Chris Nelder, head of the vehicle-grid integration team at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank.

The National Weather Service is forecasting another day of single-digit temperatures in Dallas and up to six more inches of snow tonight through tomorrow. Houston’s Mayor Turner said that anyone who was without electricity yesterday was likely to remain so, including through today.

Emily Grubert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech and an energy specialist, tweeted, “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.”

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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