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What Went Wrong With The Electric Grid In Texas?

NOEL KING, HOST:

I want to bring in Emily Grubert, a professor at Georgia Tech whose expertise includes electrical networks. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY GRUBERT: Good morning.

KING: You heard Joey Palacios offer a kind of layman's explanation, but I want to lean into your expertise. What went wrong with the power grid in Texas?

GRUBERT: Yeah, so I think one of the most important things to understand about what's going on is that these are really extreme conditions for the Texas grid. It's very cold. It's cold across the entire state, and it's cold for a long time. This does not happen very often. There are other places where grids get this cold and manage to pull through, but the main thing here is that the Texas grid is facing conditions that it was not designed for. I think the overall explanation that what happened is that demand really spiked both in the electricity and the natural gas systems at the same time as a lot of the generators were not able to operate because of those cold conditions and not being prepared for it is really what's going on. But a lot of grids are susceptible to really, really major failures when they are this far outside of design conditions.

KING: Why aren't power grids built to handle extreme weather, given how important they are to people's day-to-day existence?

GRUBERT: Yeah, so they are. But they're generally built to handle extreme weather that people expect.

KING: Oh, OK.

GRUBERT: So the kinds of extreme weather that Texas receives, they are more equipped to handle. I think this is one of the major problems that we're seeing across the United States, with a couple of examples over the last year, where particularly due to a lot of changes due to climate change and other big changes that we're seeing, grids are experiencing more extreme conditions than they're designed for. Whether that's a contributor here is something that I'm sure we'll hear a lot about in the coming years. But the overall point, that grids are facing more extreme conditions more often and further outside of the categories that they've expected is a huge one

KING: Regarding climate change, I want to disambiguate a part of this argument. So Texas' governor, Greg Abbott, went on Fox News last night, and he said renewable energy is actually partly to blame for this crisis. Let's listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were, collectively, more than 10% of our power grid. And that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis. It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas, as well as other states, to make sure that we'll be able to heat our homes in the wintertime and cool our homes in the summertime.

KING: Is he correct?

GRUBERT: So this is a very frustrating narrative, and largely because it is true that some of the solar and wind farms were producing less than you might have expected because of the extreme cold, but a lot of them were actually overperforming expectations as well. Simultaneously, almost an order of magnitude or almost 10 times as much of the thermal system - so coal, gas and nuclear - actually shut down because of the extreme cold, due to things like instruments freezing, et cetera. So I think the overall point here is all of the fuels were really, really struggling. And as the governor mentions, renewables being about 10% of the grid, the other 90% of the grid was not available in the way that we expected to, either, and in a way that was very, very far outside of what we expected to see fail.

KING: OK, so if you just look at the numbers and percentages, you sort of see what is the main point here, and the main point is the electrical grid itself. In California last summer, we saw rolling blackouts as well. Heat waves forced them.

GRUBERT: Yeah.

KING: It isn't just Texas, as you've pointed out. What does this say to you about the state of our country's infrastructure and what may need to be overhauled when?

GRUBERT: Yeah, it's a great question. I think we see a lot of infrastructure systems struggling. And one of the things that I would really like to see us do is optimize around the types of services that we need to be providing. So both in heat wave and cold wave situations, as well as storms, really focusing on when there is an emergency, how do we make sure that people are safe and taken care of? In some ways, that probably looks like making our buildings better. In some ways, that probably makes - looks like making sure that we have emergency systems ready to go, like warming centers and things like that. But I don't think that we can always expect the grid to meet all emergency situations.

KING: Emily Grubert is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech. Thank you so much for your time, professor Grubert.

GRUBERT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.