The Texas Power Outage Crisis and the Importance of Thoughtful Mitigation

The recent power grid failures in Texas have certainly made a lot of headlines in both the news and have crowded a lot of social media feeds as well.  A system failure of this magnitude has the unique ability to inspire the insertion of political bias and vitriol on both sides of the isle, and even more finger-pointing for anyone and everyone who may have been involved.  The human suffering, as well as the shock from watching one of the foundations of our modern society failing so spectacularly is impossible to ignore.  And we have been here before, with the challenges that California has faced over the last couple of years with their power grid.

From the perspective of a power engineer however, our interest is not in finding a convenient culprit for these events, but rather to solve them and ensure that they never happen again.  In order to solve these problems, we must observe all of the facts with an honest and unbiased approach.  But solving them is only part of the effort required.  We must also determine as thoroughly as is possible the ways in which such disasters can be prevented from happening again.  In many of our engineering projects and efforts at PRE, Inc, we often call this portion of design Mitigation. 

Regarding mitigation, most of the time we are analyzing power systems, evaluating realistic and worst-case scenarios, and determining the best recommendations on how to avoid (or rather mitigate) these safety hazards from happening.  Additional financial consideration for the client is also required as very often it is all too easy to over design a system which will cost an arm and a leg to actually build or construct.  And this is where thoughtful mitigation is needed most.

Do we have all the data we need? Do we have enough granularity (or perhaps too much)? Are we truly accounting for all potential (realistic) scenarios?  Is the data correct, and correctly evaluated? Have we considered all mitigation techniques, including even some that may be less obvious but equally (or more) effective?  Are we suggesting mitigation that is not necessary because it is just a client standard, or a typical industry practice, or perhaps we do not fully understand the system at all states?  These are just some of the questions that we must ask ourselves when determining mitigation, and a truly thoughtful and professional approach requires that we give it this effort.  We at PRE place the upmost importance in this task as we understand the consequences for our clients.

In Texas, the proper mitigation for a rare but extreme cold weather was not in place unfortunately. It is true that during one of the last large winter events in Texas which caused outages in 2009 spurred an investigation resulting in a 300 page report. However, it is clear that not enough has been done since, most likely because the odds of such extreme weather occurring was so low that the cost of mitigating such scenarios was not worth it.  Certainly, wind turbines in Scandinavia do not freeze up during the winter, and thermal power plants in Canada do not trip off line from frozen pipes (or a lack of supply when the temperature) drops, and nuclear plants in colder climates keep going year round without issue.  All three power sources reportedly failed throughout Texas during the 2021 winter storm, but it is not as though techniques and technology does not exist to deal with such events.  Those mitigation techniques most likely come with a hefty price tag, and often that price tag is passed on to the end use customer. 

There really is no easy or convenient solution to preventing such a disaster from happening again in the future. But when real people are losing their lives, and many millions more are suffering, the true value and necessity of thoughtful mitigation design is on full and tragic display in this very public example.  And you can bet that those in charge of the various systems that failed, the professionals charged with evaluating the event, and those watching in other regions will take it very seriously too.