Winter storms and freezing temperatures this week in Texas have led to quite a few power outages, though still noticeably less than last year. However, the cause for concern, in this case, is related to several counties reporting outages with high numbers of individuals that rely on electricity for medical devices according to an analysis conducted by CrisisReady.
Those responsible for managing the grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), stated that it expects high demand for energy over the duration of the cold front, and believes that it has sufficient power generation to handle said demand. Moreover, they have noted that several gas suppliers do not expect to have a full supply this week during the storm. In preparation for an emergency, they even considered asking residents to reduce their use of electricity as it represents the first step in reducing grid strain.
The loss of electricity in the bitter cold is always a critical issue, but it's particularly frightening for those who rely on it to keep devices like ventilators running. New research from federal Medicare beneficiary data identified counties with high numbers of people using medical equipment that is dependent on electricity. It discovered that six counties in Texas had over 1% of the entire population with loss of power during at least one point in the storm.
Of some 50,000 people living in Lamar County, a high percentage of individuals were without power, with nearly 900 dependent on devices using electricity. The tens of thousands that lost their electricity this week in Texas pales when compared to last year's cold snap-induced losses which led to hundreds of lives lost and affected millions of others.
Even the smallest outages can prove devastating if they hit the most vulnerable of groups. Research has demonstrated that hospital visits for issues related to respiratory problems increase substantially after power outages, with many patients checking in due to the inability to use critical devices like oxygen tanks.
"Hopefully we become more resilient as the climate continues changing, rather than this all getting worse." - Joan Casey, Columbia University Environmental Epidemiologist
This problem is only getting worse. In the United States alone, 2020 was calculated as the worst year in the history of the country for power outages. Furthermore, climate change has worsened the stress on grids from weather-related incidents. Experts hope that more backstops to power systems can be created such that these issues don't keep cutting off electricity from homes.
The National Climate Assessment of 2018 warned of more long-lasting and frequent power outages. This has been reflected by the data provided by the Energy Information Association as the average outage has increased due to significant weather events. Electricity in the United States has traditionally relied on legacy generators from coal and gas power plants. Unfortunately, such technologies are not immune to failure as observed in numerous examples.
For instance, the Texas blackouts occurring in February of 2021 were responsible for the deaths of 246 Texans that left well over 10 million individuals without power. This resulted in plant outages far exceeding the local operator's expectations by an approximate value of 45 gigawatts. Gas plant outages were found to be the key culprit in system failures.
The risks of additional failure have not disappeared as seen in early January 2022 when gas production buckled and knocked nearly 12% of the state's capacity offline, a figure encompassing over half of all gas units. Low-income communities suffered disproportionately by facing a significantly longer road to recovery due to the priority of critical infrastructure and wealthier neighborhoods.
The integration of more renewable energy has been advocated as the best way to boost the resilience of grids and reduce reliance on fossil fuels that worsen the climate.