As the Texas electricity crisis shows, our infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather conditions
On Valentine’s Day, a rare gust of arctic air swept through the central United States and Texas, causing single-digit temperatures to drop there and nearly causing the power grid to collapse. State. A state known for its abundant energy resources has seen widespread blackouts in natural gas and electricity systems that have left over four million Texans without electricity for days.
The immediate cause of Network failure in Texas is now well understood. Frigid temperatures drove electricity demand to a new winter high that exceeded even the “extreme” demand scenario envisioned by the state’s electricity grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Then dozens of natural gas power plants and a few wind turbines quickly disconnected, plunging the Texan network into crisis. To prevent the entire network from going down, ERCOT ordered utilities to trigger emergency outages and disconnect millions of customers.
Scientists are still trying to determine if the rapidly warming Arctic is driving it more frequent breakdowns of the “polar vortex”, which precipitated the Texas freeze. But we know that climate change is making extreme weather conditions like heat waves, droughts, forest fires and floods more frequent and severe. Each of these events can push our critical infrastructure to breaking point, as happened in Texas. How can we prepare?
Climate resilience will require investment of up to $ 100 billion per year worldwide in our infrastructure and our communities. But careful planning can help our scarce resources go further.
Looking back, the Texas unrest offers several key lessons on how to make critical infrastructure and vulnerable communities everywhere more resilient to climate extremes.
Assess future risks
First of all, it should be noted that the grid failure alone did not lead to the intense suffering and loss of life that residents of Texas have faced.
Natural gas wells and gathering lines also froze, halving the production and supply of gas to pipelines and power plants in the state, as demand increased by half. Elsewhere, water treatment plants have lost power and frozen pipes have put pressure on water systems. Frozen roads made it difficult for residents to travel safely.
Connections between these infrastructure systems keep lights on and taps flowing in good times, but can make failure worse when things go wrong.
Extreme weather conditions also tend to cause several parts of critical systems to fail at the same time. These types of simultaneous failures are much more likely than you might think. If 10 plants each have a 10% chance of failure but these probabilities are all independent, the probability that they all fail simultaneously is infinitesimal (0.00000001%).
Even more worrying is a 1% probability that 10 plants will fail all at once. So building resilient infrastructure means paying close attention to extreme events that can strike large parts of the system at once, whether it’s a winter storm, wildfire, hurricane, or from a flood.
Finally, the worst human impacts of any infrastructure failure do not come from the failure itself. They come from exposure to freezing temperatures, a lack of clean water, dwindling food supplies and fear that help will not come soon enough. The extent of the suffering is therefore determined not only by the extent of the infrastructure failure, but also by the ability of each community to weather the storm.