The massive electric power outages in Texas may seem puzzling to many: How can a state so rich in energy resources be brought to its knees by a winter storm, leaving millions of households without electricity and many without water?
The early blame game has elected officials pointing the finger at renewable energy resources and “green energy” policies, and calling for the heads of power companies and the state’s electricity regulators. The governor announced he is launching an official investigation, and judgment should be reserved until an unbiased process has been completed.
Finger-pointing at this point is misguided and counterproductive. Renewables only supply about 20% of Texas’ electricity and are unrelated to the state’s other traditional power generators that are shut down or malfunctioning. The fact is that electricity system operators in Texas did not adequately plan for a highly unlikely event — in this case a pair of massive winter storms engulfing more of the state than usual, exacerbated by sustained bitter cold. It is important to note, for example, that traditional power plants depend on multiple systems for operations, and it appears that those systems may not have been designed or winterized to withstand extreme cold weather.
Invest more in power grid resilience
Often companies and governments do not plan for such events because it is expensive to do so and the likelihood of needing such a plan is remote. Across the country, regulatory agencies and the utility companies they oversee face a constant balancing act in choosing where to invest in their systems, and budget considerations often constrain planning for unlikely events, especially when incurring such costs could result in higher electric rates for consumers.
Sadly, this is not the first time the electric system in Texas has been brought to its knees by a winter storm. The winter storms of 2011 wreaked havoc on the state and its residents, and a report on the root causes of that devastation offered policymakers a series of actions to prevent a repeat. As state officials embark on a similar analysis of the current crisis, they should examine and publicly disclose which recommendations from 2011 were implemented and explain why others were not. Clearly, history repeats itself, and with two highly destructive winter weather crises occurring in Texas just 10 years apart, the lessons from both should be heeded and acted upon decisively.
At the end of the day, the situation in Texas provides an important lesson: As a nation, we must increase our investment in electric grid resilience and plan for the full range of events that could disable our electric grid — because the cost of not doing so is potentially catastrophic.
The harsh reality is that without electricity, very few things that are critical to public health and safety will function, and life as we know it grinds to a halt. From transportation to health care and emergency services, grocery stores and water supplies, cell phones, the internet and banking, nearly everything we consider essential relies on electricity.
Texas winter storms: I went 55 hours without power in freezing Austin. At least I’m alive.
Today the culprit in Texas and several other states is extreme winter weather, but the greater threat we face is not weather related. It is the daily bombardment of cyberattacks on our nation’s critical infrastructure — most notably on the electric sector that provides the power upon which the rest of that infrastructure relies to operate.
Just last December, we learned that hackers linked to Russia infiltrated numerous American companies and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon. Microsoft President Brad Smith told CBS News that, by its analysis, the number of engineers required to pull off the now infamous SolarWinds hack was “certainly more than 1,000.”
Danger from Russia and China
Separately, utility executives acknowledge their companies are subjected to literally millions of cyberattacks per day. And it was widely reported last summer that the National Security Agency issued a warning to critical infrastructure operators regarding cyberattack threats to industrial control systems.
This quiet but unceasing barrage of sophisticated cyber intrusions by Russia, China and others, similar to the more high-profile situation in Texas today, highlight the fact that upgrading the U.S. electric grid needs to be a national priority, and the cost of doing so should be shared equitably by federal and state governments, electric utility companies and consumers. Such a program could include grants, low-interest loans and other incentives to dramatically improve and modernize the grid.
Texas rolled by winter storms:A dispatch from my frozen living room
As the Biden administration swings into full gear, and a new Congress is poised to consider sweeping infrastructure legislation, our national leaders must recognize that among the 14 categories of critical infrastructure, no investment will be more important to our nation than making the electric grid more secure and more resilient.
The technology and know-how to make the grid more robust and resilient is largely available. It is time to muster the national will to do so. Nothing less than our national welfare and our national security is at stake.
Jim Cunningham, former president of the Pennsylvania Electric Association and a former senior vice president of the New York Power Authority, is executive director of Protect Our Power, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen the reliability and resilience of the U.S. electric grid.