On Tuesday, frigid temperatures pushed Texas to a new winter record for power usage. But thanks in part to wind power, Texans were able to avoid major power outages, despite the stress on the grid.
On Monday, cold weather and shut downs of some power plants forced the Texas grid operator to begin implementing its emergency plan to meet demand. Demand remained high on Tuesday, but increased output from West Texas wind farms enabled the state to avoid an emergency scenario. It wasn’t the first time wind has helped Texas avoid power outages in extreme weather, either — in 2011, high wind outputs during peak demand helped Texas’s grid weather 100-plus temperatures.
Wind energy is helping other states weather the Polar Vortex as well — as AWEA notes, when the temperatures first began dropping in the Upper Midwest, wind generated enough energy to power 6 million average homes. The Mid-Atlantic region, too, saw high wind energy output, which helped bolster the grid after some power plants failed unexpectedly due to the weather.
But this week’s Polar Vortex is putting the vulnerability of the U.S. energy grid in focus. On Tuesday, electricity demand in parts of the Southeast U.S. was the second-highest it’s been in winter since the 1920s, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Parts of Tennessee lost power during the night, and parts of South Carolina instituted rolling blackouts to manage the electricity demand. Earlier this week, 40,000 people in Indiana lost power, and people across the country were urged to conserve power so that the grid could deal with the spike in demand.
Severe weather is the number one cause of power outages in the U.S., meaning that as extreme events become more common, the U.S. power grid will be put more and more at risk. Between 2003 and 2012, extreme weather caused more than 675 power outages and cost the U.S. $18 billion to $33 billion per year, according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and the Department of Energy. According to the report, which was released in August, transmission line construction in the U.S. has slowed from 10,000 miles built per year in the late 1960s to just 1,000 miles per year in the mid-2000s — a slowdown that means about 70 percent of U.S. transmission lines and power transformers are over 25 years old. Massoud Amin, electrical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, estimates that updating the country to Smart Grid technology would cost $21 billion per year for the next two decades, but would ultimately result in savings of savings of between $79 and $94 billion per year.
“As a nation, we must take action to improve our electric grid if we want to meet the power needs of a pervasively digital society,” Amin wrote in Forbes in 2012. “Americans should not accept or learn to cope with increasing blackouts.”