When Public Utility Commissioner Lori Cobos pressured state climatologist on how to account for the extreme weather to strengthen Texas ’power grid, she didn’t use the words C.
“I don’t think we can trust the old models,” said Cobos, who was appointed to the commission in June. “We need to really think more progressively about how we calculate statistics and what data we use, given the weather fluctuations in Texas and across the country.”
“Weather fluctuations” and “extreme weather” were the phrases Texas regulators largely held last week at a meeting on the hardening of the state’s power grid, just days after world scientists of climate change, preeminent, published the most terrible report on how human activity is heating the world at a rapid pace.
Texas is already experiencing warmer, longer summers, rising sea levels and increasingly intense hurricanes due to climate change, trends that are expected to accelerate in the coming decades if humans continue to emit unsustainable amounts of greenhouse gases. .
With climate change anticipated in the discussion, Texas Public Utility Commission officials questioned the Texas Electric Reliability Council and the state’s top climatologist about how these trends could be included in the network’s regulations. electric covering much of Texas. The commissioners considered how to plan an unknown that, according to scientists, would bring new weather extremes.
“What about the next extreme event?” said Jimmy Glotfelty, a new PUC commissioner. “We have to think, at some point, of an event worse than what happened in February.”
This is the fundamental question for those who manage the power grid: what is the “extreme” climate in Texas? The definition will base the agency’s rules on the extent to which power plants must be upgraded and upgraded to prevent another network catastrophe, and it is unclear how or whether Texas will include in the parameters future climate models.
The utility regulator is developing rules to ensure power plants can withstand extreme weather after a winter storm paralyzes the grid and leaves millions without electricity for several days in February, one of the worst environmental disasters. of the history of the state. According to a BuzzFeed analysis, the storm killed up to 700 people and caused estimated economic damage of $ 86 billion to $ 129 billion, according to The Perryman Group, a Texas-based economic company.
Lawmakers responded with Senate Bill 3, which required upgrades to the power grid, but largely left the details to the PUC. During Thursday’s meeting, PUC staff and commissioners said lawmakers had left the agency little time to implement the new and complex regulations.
The PUC has published a draft regulations and estimates that large power plants should not apply the rules until the winter of 2022. Medium and small power plants would have deadlines for the winter of 2023 and 2024, respectively.
“We are still trying to define what a weather emergency is,” Barksdale English, director of compliance and compliance for the Public Utility Commission, said in his statements to commissioners on Thursday. “The best thing we’ve thought about is thinking about all the historical weather data that exists in the state.”
But, he noted, “there are many different ways to divide this data.”
Despite uncertainty over how to incorporate climate modeling into new rules for the power grid, Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy and climate consultant who has observed the Public Utility Commission for more than a decade, said that Thursday was a politically “milestone” as a Texas regulatory agency asked about the extreme weather.
A decade ago, top Texas politicians sowed confusion about climate science as they sued the Obama administration for federal efforts to reduce carbon emissions. In 2014, the Texas Republican Party platform called climate change a “political agenda that seeks to control every aspect of our lives.” The latest platform states that while the party supports the objective teaching of scientific theories, science, including climate change, should be taught as “challenging scientific theories subject to change.”
“This is what the Texas government and society at large are fighting for, this is the long tradition of the climate [change] denial, “Lewin said.” But climate change is not a 2050 thing. It’s happening now, in real time. So that’s the change. [electricity regulators have] I have to do.
“I think they’re trying,” he added.
Will regulators prepare the network for climate change?
A draft of the agency’s new rules would require plants to be able to serve under the 95th percentile of extreme weather scenarios; for example, plants should operate during 95% of the extreme high or low temperatures that may occur.
These ranges will be determined by a meteorological study conducted by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the entity that operates the network, with the contributions of the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon. New network regulations would depend on this study, which may or may not include climate modeling that attempts to predict future scenarios.
At Thursday’s PUC meeting, representatives of ERCOT and Nielsen-Gammon said the study would be based on historical climate data. It is not yet determined how the study could incorporate changing weather patterns, experts at the meeting said.
“I’ve found that jeans in general rely more on data than models,” Nielsen-Gammon said in response to questions from commissioners on how to incorporate the recent extreme weather into the study.
“On the other hand,” he said, “since we don’t know what will happen to the weather and given that we have a limited track record, it may be prudent to allow larger margins of error.”
One of the challenges for regulators, scientists say, will be to make climate models based on data analyzed globally. Texas regulators want to predict changes at a much more granular level (the grid needs data every hour to supply enough power as demand fluctuates), so it could be difficult to link the two. But climate scientists warned that putting climate projections aside would be crazy.
“Any reasonable rule would explain the additional warming that can be expected,” said Michael Mann, a Penn State climate scientist and director of the Earth System Science Center.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Nielsen-Gammon said it is possible to include some climate models in the study, if that is what ERCOT and the PUC decide to do.
Jason Furtado, a climate scientist at the University of Oklahoma, said climate data can be regionalized with various “resizing” techniques and that scientists are able to project how carbon dioxide emissions will affect the frequency of some extreme weather, such as the number of days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit per year, in a given region.
“In my opinion, this is what you need to do if you plan to invest in something for the next 20, 30 or 50 years,” Furtado said.
He and other climate scientists said regulators should include weather forecasts or the risk of leaving the grid unprepared for a warming world.
“The baseline is changing,” Furtado said. “What we might now call extreme, in 30 years, may not be so extreme.”
According to scientists, projecting the next extreme cold event in Texas is even more complex. In general, climate scientists expect to see less extreme cold as the climate warms around the world, but some scientists think climate change is altering the winter lightning current so that places like Texas are more susceptible to cold air explosions as during the February storm. Said Mann.
Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Climate and Energy Program, agreed that regulators should find a way to incorporate climate modeling into the new rules of the network. He noted that decisions made about the weathering of large facilities will take decades and that the planning itself can take years.
“Just by looking at past conditions, we wouldn’t have a good picture of what might happen in the future,” Dahl said.
Grid correction is already running late
But ERCOT and the PUC may not be able to incorporate climate change into the first pass of the new regulations for the network. The state is already lagging behind in developing regulations, commissioners and agency staff said.
“[We have] six months to draft a rule that the commission had never adopted, and that we had never regulated in this area, ”said English, the director of the PUC. “For such a complex audience and important to the public, it has been a difficult challenge.”
He said the agency asked ERCOT to complete the weather study so that finding and hiring an independent company to do so would take too long to meet the six-month deadline set by the legislature. However, it is unlikely that ERCOT will complete the study before the end of January, PUC staff reported.
In the meantime, the PUC could be forced to adopt a short-term solution. Commissioners rejected ideas on how to require power plants to report on what went wrong in February and their plans or the attempt to fix it. Or, they said, they could simply use some of the national reliability standards for winter networks developed by North American Electric Reliability Corp. as a basis until stricter weather standards are developed in Texas.
This could save the agency time to work out a more rigorous definition of the “extreme” climate, while power plants would be required to make the upgrades that lawmakers clearly wanted in a short period of time, commissioners said.
Whether implementation lasts months or years, energy and climate experts said, the debate over whether and how to include climate change models in regulation will be key in the effort to avert another power grid disaster.
“If they set a standard for weathering … last time, we’re in real trouble as a state,” Lewin said. “This will not secure our network.”