One year ago, the people of Texas, including more than 1,500 Siemens Energy employees and their families, endured frigid weather, snow and ice storms that led to massive power outages across the state, leaving millions without electricity and heat for days. Winter Storm Uri resulted in a $100 billion hit to the economy and cost hundreds of Texans their lives.
Today, we are in the heart of the Texas winter and potentially face more rounds of freezing weather. Have we done enough since February 2021 to prevent a new storm from wreaking havoc on our power generation and transmission infrastructure? We know that weatherization is key to protecting power plants from the elements, but is this measure alone enough to save lives, and are weatherization efforts being implemented in all the places they are needed most? Should we be looking for a more comprehensive plan of defense that would address the other root causes for the outages beyond the systems that weren’t designed for cold-weather operations?
In the wake of last year’s storms, I testified before the Texas Legislature about what could be done to prevent a repeat of Winter Storm Uri’s devastating impacts. Over the course of the next few months, my company, Siemens Energy, engaged in in-depth analysis that culminated in a series of recommendations. These take into consideration the multiple reasons for the failure of the grid and offer a collaborative path forward for companies like mine, our customers and regulators, to ensure the future wellbeing of our communities when we need power most.
Beyond the lack of weatherization, the Texas grid was isolated from other national systems that could have supported it during a crisis. The increase of renewable energy sources coming onto the grid, a welcomed step along the road to the energy transition, meant that a significant volume of fossil fuel-fired energy resources were idled or completely offline when the storm hit, and long restart times meant that they weren’t available as reliable sources of backup power. A drop in natural gas production meant the power plants that were still operating couldn’t do so at full capacity.
Developing a resilience strategy for the state requires addressing these issues, and it requires a partnership between stakeholders. Our research resulted in 15 recommendations to avoid a repeat of February 2021. In addition to proper weatherization and more regular monitoring and auditing of critical infrastructure when temperatures drop, we need to expand our gas storage capability to supply plenty of natural gas to power generators in an emergency. We should also prioritize our gas delivery infrastructure in the winter months to be able to prevent load shedding, which is when power companies reduce electricity consumption by switching off the power supply to groups of customers when demand exceeds supply.
Increasing the dual-fuel capability for gas turbines so that they can run on other sources of energy will make us nimbler when gas shortages strike, and we ought to upgrade equipment like wooden power poles to handle winter weather, elevate our equipment off the ground where possible, build drainage systems and seal control rooms from the elements.
In addition, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, cannot operate in isolation, unable to rely on resources beyond its boundaries. Improving the interconnectedness of the electric grids between states will allow needed access to backup power in a crisis. Our nation, and the state of Texas, have a greater-than-ever need for a reliable supply of energy. At the same time, extreme weather events are occurring more frequently. The increasing complexity of our power systems and our grid demand that we work together, and will require far more oversight and investment than in the past. We have the technology and the expertise to make it happen; now we need the will.