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You could point fingers in several directions for the outages that stemmed from last week’s polar vortex obliteration of the Texas power grid. You can’t rightly blame Earth for doing what it does, but you could certainly condemn the state’s deregulation of its energy system. Texas also remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and the power plants that run on them failed en masse. So you might blame those operators, but you can’t blame renewables for this one.
But you’re not likely to see people point the finger at the obscure yet fascinating eccentricities of the fragmented United States energy grid. And you’re even less likely to hear that what happened in Texas could help spur the country into better preparing its grid for the ascent of renewables—and the nation’s descent into the ravages of climate change.
In the future, the central challenge for the US will be obtaining power that is both clean and “firm,” in the parlance of energy nerds. “The real failing of Texas was the reliance upon the natural gas backbone as the firm power source, which of course wasn't so firm, as they later learned,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. He’s a coauthor on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report coincidentally released today called The Future of Electric Power in the United States. “If you want to decarbonize the grid, and keep power reliable, then you've got to have a clean, firm power source,” he continues. “That's the central goal.”
But the US grid isn’t going to make the wide-scale sharing of clean energy easy—exporting solar energy from the Southwest, for instance, and wind energy from the Midwest. That’s because the mainland grid is divided into three sections. The Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection meet at the eastern borders of Colorado and Wyoming, splitting the country in two. The Texas Interconnection is divorced from both in the name of energy independence, though it doesn’t trace neatly to the state’s borders—some of the panhandle is actually part of the Eastern Interconnection. And in the northern and southern parts of the US, our grids intertwine with those run by our neighbors. There’s a Quebec grid that exchanges power across the border with New England. The Pacific Northwest similarly exchanges with British Columbia, and Southern California with a little bit of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.
Each of these grids more or less does its own thing: Utility companies generate power and ferry it around their territories. These utilities are typically owned by a state, a municipality, or investors. The utilities regularly exchange power within an interconnection as energy demand waxes and wanes in a given area thanks to heat waves or cold snaps. So, for instance, in the West, high voltage transmission towers carry electricity between Washington, Oregon, and California. But neither the eastern nor the western half of the national grid sticks tendrils into Texas in a way that would have let the state borrow large amounts of power when facing a massive, sudden freeze.
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