They Thought They Had the Energy

It’s not just climate and weather that make these events bad. A lot of the time, it’s really the intersection between unusual events—events that are outside design parameters—and the fact that on the infrastructure side we have a lot of issues with long-term deferred maintenance and obsolescence.

Emily Grubert on Texas, energy infrastructure, and the prospects for renewables

Alfred T. Palmer, Generator hall of the powerhouse, Chickamauga Dam, Tenn. 1942. Via Library of Congress.

Emily Grubert is a civil engineer and environmental sociologist who teaches at Georgia Tech. She researches how community and societal priorities can be better incorporated into multicriteria policy and project decisions, with a focus on energy, water, and infrastructure systems. An expert on the energy system in Texas, she has recently published research into how the United States could meet a proposed deadline of decarbonizing electricity production by 2035. I contacted Grubert earlier this month, as the power came back on in Texas. I was curious about what the disaster there could tell us, or not, about our climatically redefined energy future. Why was it so hard to replace our polluting and often outdated fossil fuel infrastructure with low-carbon alternatives, even as solar and wind have recently become incredibly inexpensive? And what could a well-meaning person interested in decarbonizing our energy system accomplish at the local level? Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. —KL

Katy Lederer In several of your talks, you discuss the many trade-offs that present themselves when you try to change out a power plant or change an energy system in a given location. How do you get people to look at these kinds of projects in that more abstract, systematic way?

Emily Grubert One of the things that is really difficult about infrastructure projects associated with decarbonization is that we see essentially the need for a local solution to a global problem.

There are a lot of cases where the benefits of doing something are not necessarily going to accrue to the people who are experiencing the harm. This is not a new idea. Even in the fossil fuel industry, we see this a ton: frontline communities experience massive amounts of pollution because there’s a refinery or because there’s something else going on there that’s providing something that society more broadly sees as a benefit.

With renewable energy, it’s a bit different because you don’t necessarily see cancer clusters and things like that associated with being near the infrastructure. But if we’re trying to reduce contributions to climate change globally, that means that we’re going to take the desert by someone’s house for solar panels, or we’re going to put up wind farms in their community. A lot of the focus on things like jobs has really been trying to say, Well, what are the local benefits?

When we talk about trade-offs, oftentimes the real challenge is that you’re imposing on a specific group of people on behalf of everybody, as opposed to people vocally making a choice between things that might be good or might be bad for them specifically.

KL It’s interesting to hear you point to the fact that this has always been the case, in the sense that a fossil fuel plant is already benefiting a large number of people at the expense of a small number. How did that kind of massive infrastructure emerge in the first place? Was there a lot of pushback as it came in, or were people less aware of those kinds of trade-offs?

EG Well, for one thing, the immediate benefits of industrialization were a little bit more obvious. You build a refinery, now you can drive a car, as opposed to not having been able to do such things beforehand.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of our refineries, in particular, are, like, a hundred years old. I don’t remember what the average age is, but a lot of the time modern refineries are rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt versions of older ones. They haven’t necessarily changed locations in a long time. One hundred years is an exaggeration, but they do get pretty old.

In some cases these things were providing access to services that hadn’t really been accessible at all before. In other cases we were much less aware of environmental impacts in general. For a long time, we didn’t really have environmental rules. That didn’t change until the 1970s, at least on a federal level. Also, the infrastructure might have been there before there was quite as much residential development in the area.

So stuff that was out of town in 1940 is now in the middle of town in 2021. Land next to these big industrial sites is cheaper, which can result in poorer people moving into those areas and experiencing disproportionate negative impacts.

KL Intuitively it would seem like, “Oh, let’s just switch out this old energy infrastructure with some nice new decarbonized energy infrastructure!” But in a way that’s actually much harder, because the old infrastructure is already there, the services are already there, the politics around that infrastructure are already there.

EG To some extent. One of the big differences between renewables and fossil fuel infrastructure in particular is that for the former, you need to be where the resource is. That’s not necessarily true for fossil fuel infrastructure beyond mining and so on. You need to put a wind farm where the wind is—you can’t just put it where there’s already a coal power plant. That creates a challenge for just directly swapping out infrastructure.

KL Speaking of complicated infrastructure, how would you describe the weather event that happened in Texas?

EG It was an extreme polar vortex excursion—that’s the way that I would probably describe it, which essentially means that it got very, very cold for a pretty long time relative to what usually happens in Texas.

Some of what I’ve been reading recently suggests that this is about on par with something that happened in the late ’80s. It’s a very unusual event that kept the vast majority of Texas very cold for much longer than they usually see.

KL And how would you describe how that weather event interacted with the energy system in Texas?

EG Two ways. But let me start by saying that it actually affected a lot of the rest of the country as well, especially through the middle, in places like Mississippi and Louisiana, and Oklahoma, which were also caught up in this weather event.

The two big drivers were a mix of dramatically increasing demand—suddenly people needed to heat their houses much more than they usually do—and a reduction in supply. In a number of places natural gas extraction stopped, and a lot of power plants weren’t able to operate. This confluence created a very severe situation.

KL What about the grid in Texas? You’ve spoken about and studied coal and natural gas infrastructure there. I won’t even ask about the renewables because those became a political football and were not the major driver of what happened. How would you describe how coal and gas were interacting in that system?

EG As we’re seeing more information coming out, one of the big stories is really how the natural gas infrastructure responded. I’ll start there because it’s a little bit different from the other ones, including the renewables.

Natural gas is an unusual fuel in that we use it for multiple different types of energy services. Most fuels you either just use for electricity or you just use for transportation—so oil is pretty much only for transportation, almost everything else is pretty much only for electricity.

Natural gas we use for a bunch of different types of things. You might use it directly in your house for heating and cooking. A lot of industrial users use it directly for processing and things along those lines, and then we also use it for electricity. These uses are surprisingly similar in scale. The biggest share is for electricity generation, but I think that’s around 40 percent for electricity and about a third each for the other two.

What that means is that natural gas is actually something that people were demanding for multiple different types of energy services during this big freeze. Some of it was just for home heating, some of it was for electricity supply. I think they turned off a bunch of industrial users. One of the big problems with natural gas as a result was that its price spiked really dramatically at the same time as people were actually having trouble getting it out of production fields. A bunch of wells shut in, from what I understand, and a bunch of gathering lines and so forth froze. So the way we move that natural gas from the well to the consumer became a really big challenge, exacerbated dramatically by the fact that the gas was being demanded for a bunch of different types of uses.

A relevant aspect of the natural gas infrastructure side of it is that, because it’s very difficult to turn gas back on at the house level if you shut it off, a lot of the time, both for safety reasons and for long-term recovery reasons, the gas was prioritized for households. So a lot of power plants couldn’t get gas, which wasn’t really an issue for most other fuels. Oftentimes the diversity of uses is seen as a good thing, but in this situation, the competition for the fuel across different user cases was pretty significant.

On the coal side, what we saw was the same thing that’s been observed in a couple of different previous iterations of cold weather in Texas. So things like the coal piles freezing—the plants that we also saw with natural gas, and with a nuke, I believe, as well—actually experienced some freezing in sensors and water lines and things like that that were challenging their ability to actually produce.

But it was not the same kind of thing where there was just massive fuel competition and then the lack of access to more fuel for the power sector.

KL If the powers that be—ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) or the government or the many other actors involved—could go back and try to prevent what happened, what would be some things that they might try to do differently?

EG One of the really big ones is that we need to think carefully about how we respond to emergency situations. One of the major failings in Texas, and in some other areas as well, which didn’t have quite as widespread or serious issues but certainly did have issues, is that people weren’t notified in advance that there was a possibility that this was going to happen. They weren’t given a sense of how severe it could be.

There’s a lot of debate about whether ERCOT itself and, indeed, a lot of the other actors, realized how severe it was going to be. But the fact remains that a lot of people didn’t really have warning about the fact that they might be in a blackout for a while. The communication side is a really big deal, but so is the emergency response half of things. There were a lot of really big gaps in the way that many of these places responded to the event.

Not being able to get people to hospitals, not really knowing who needed to have power because they were on an oxygen tank or something like that, and not being able to communicate to people where they could go to get warm, to get shelter, to get medical care—that’s a general failure in emergency response that I think many different organizations bear some responsibility for and that goes beyond just Texas.

KL What could the powers that be have done differently with the infrastructure or the market, or, it sounds like, with advanced warning systems?

EG A very long-term thing is focusing on how we provide energy services to people and really thinking about what that means from an integrated systems perspective.

Really thinking about how our homes and buildings are designed and actually investing in better buildings (insulation and other measures that allow your house or wherever it is that you’re sheltering to retain the heat or retain the cool that you have inside of it)—this can contribute to something that we call “passive survivability.” This essentially means that you can survive extreme temperatures in either the hot or cold direction when you’re in your house without active input of energy. This is a standard that would apply pretty much everywhere.

Then from a market design perspective overall, the fact that people were exposed to these extraordinarily high prices is a market failure.

KL I’m not an expert on this by any stretch, but what about the difference between baseload power and peak power? Did they have a problem with that balance or was that not really the issue?

EG Not particularly. One of the things that’s interesting about this event is they thought they had the energy. People have been talking a lot about the market side or ERCOT and the number of power plants they have, and the fuel mix and all that sort of thing, but they genuinely thought that a lot of their power plants were going to turn on under these conditions and then they didn’t. So where the question lies really is: Should they have been able to turn on?

I think it’s pretty clear that there should have been an understanding that they wouldn’t in a situation like this. I was going through some previous cold weather event reports a couple of days ago, and I was shocked to discover that during a similar event in 2011 and maybe others as well, some of the absolutely most critical emergency response resources also went down under these circumstances.

We call them “black start.” Basically, they’re the resources that you rely on to start the grid back up if the whole thing goes down, which didn’t happen in this case, which is a very scary circumstance.

The fact that your extreme emergency backup systems also failed under these conditions suggests that you’ve misunderstood your system to a pretty significant degree, at least from a modeling perspective. And again, whose fault is that? Is that ERCOT’s responsibility or not? There are many different interpretations of exactly whose fault this is. But the fact is that they did think they were prepared for something like this, at least on paper, and then they weren’t.

KL Is what just happened very unusual, or do you think that kind of thing will be more common going forward?

EG I think answering that really depends on what a person means by “that kind of thing.” Something I’ve been talking a lot about lately is that we expect to see more events that are outside of design parameters for our infrastructure.

Whether that means that we’re more likely to see these cold events more often or whether we’re more likely to see specific kinds of storms more often—there is a lot of work currently on climate attribution, but I think it is true that we can absolutely say that we’re more likely to see events that take our systems outside of design parameters.

There are a lot of different kinds of things that can go wrong that all have their own periodicity and all have their own probabilities. You might have a one-in-100-year event of heat one year then have a one-in-100-year event of cold the next year.

With climate change, we are seeing a lot more specific types of weather. There’s some debate on whether these big cold-weather events are likely to become more frequent, more extreme, longer, et cetera. In general, the types of extreme events that we can plan to see are pretty variable and all have slightly different implications for what you would do to prepare. What’s definitely true is that we are likely to see things that are far outside of what we planned on.

But it’s not just climate and weather that make these events bad. A lot of the time, it’s really the intersection between unusual events—events that are outside design parameters—and the fact that on the infrastructure side we have a lot of issues with long-term deferred maintenance and obsolescence.

It’s this intersection between technological problems, climate problems, and governance problems—it’s not usually just one thing that fails.

So Texas was an extreme event on the winter weather front, but also, a lot of the infrastructure that we thought was going to perform under those conditions didn’t. And then in terms of notifications, there was a lot of mix-up in terms of who was supposed to be doing what. We had failures in all three of those arenas, and probably more. It’s not just that it was cold.

KL You published a paper recently where you wrote that meeting a 2035 deadline for decarbonizing the US would leave 15 percent of power plant capacity stranded. Is that an accurate way to put that for fossil fuels?

EG Yes, “capacity years.” That’s the remaining lifespan for a lot of those power plants. My analysis was based on just matching up what we know exists to historical observational data about how old plants tend to be when they close. If you plan on paying off your house in thirty years, maybe your house will actually last longer than that, but how old is the house when you finally tear it down? And that “how old is the house when you tear it down” element is what I was using.

KL The 15 percent capacity is what would be left until these power plants were at the end of their productive life?

EG Yes. Just to be super clear. That 15 percent value is the capacity years left over. The total lifespan left in the overall infrastructure. I think in terms of actual plants, it’s closer to 25, 27 percent or so, but that’s basically just a metric that takes into account the fact that a plant that’s two years old has a lot more left in it than a plant that’s twenty-five years old.

KL Circling back on this idea of trade-offs that we talked about earlier, on the one hand, a reader like me reads that and goes, “Oh, it’s just 15 percent. Great. We can just take these offline!” But obviously in real life, it’s very complicated taking anything offline, politically, socially, geographically.

We have this window right now where people are talking about these issues as actual possibilities or actual policy debates, actual potential trade-offs, and they are not just abstractions. When there’s a new administration that seems more open to this kind of policy debate, how much does someone in your community feel like you can really move the needle using federal policy?

EG That’s a good question. I would argue that with the federal system and a lot of the kinds of investments that many of us would like to see made into US energy in general, we actually have a very, very unusual window right now when it comes to the electricity system. I think that’s part of why there’s been so much academic engagement in this topic in particular.

It’s not just that there’s a new administration that’s more interested in doing these types of things. It’s not just that we think that there’s a political window of opportunity.

One of the things that’s really different about the energy sector relative to a lot of our other infrastructures is that, if we’re trying to de-carbonize, we’re going to have to change it out if not entirely, then pretty close to entirely. Basically, we need to go from fossil-fuel-based power plants to non-fossil-fuel-based power plants in a way that means that we do have to replace a lot of stuff. We have to build a massive amount of new infrastructure.

That is not the case for a lot of our other infrastructures that we need to adapt to climate change. With something like water infrastructure, we probably do need to make a lot of investments to counteract poor maintenance practices that go back decades in many cases and because we are actually seeing changes to operating parameters as a result of climate change. But we don’t have to go and change out everything.

With the energy sector, if we want to mitigate, we actually do have to go build the whole thing back again. That’s a huge window of opportunity for really thinking about what we’re going to build. We’re not just trying to maintain and replace things that break—we’re trying to completely remake that system. There’s this massive need for investment that actually lines up with the timelines that we use for some of these climate goals.

And then to also have a new administration that’s interested in pursuing some of those goals, it really is a very unusual opportunity.

KL How about on the business side? It’s very publicized in the media so I might have an exaggerated version, but a lot of billionaires are starting funds that are oriented toward green energy. Larry Fink and BlackRock, these big asset managers are oriented that way.

Does that move the needle on which kinds of energy are chosen or are there any blockades there?

EG It might. I think one of the things that we do see at this point is that it’s really more about implementation than genuine new R&D. So some of those funds are basically just like, “Hey, where do we invest money to build a solar farm?”

That kind of thing does matter a lot in terms of implementation, and the fact that you’re able to get financing or not has big implications. For some of the investments that are more along the lines of, “Hey, let’s invent a new kind of power plant,” that stuff matters less because it’s not immediately available.

So a lot of this is about getting as much of this infrastructure into the ground as quickly as we can, designed around principles of justice and equity. Again, if you’re financing big projects, that actually does make a difference, but a lot of the announcements that I see tend to be along the lines of, “Let’s come up with a new technology.” That takes longer.

KL Maybe to bring this further down to earth, let’s say you’re in Texas and there’s a power plant in the state that’s going to shut down anyway, or needs to be replaced. What would that process look like? Which government entity goes out and authorizes that? Is it financed with municipal bonds? Is it a private company? Does this just vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction? Is it different every time?

EG It depends on the jurisdiction, which is part of the reason why it’s hard. Sometimes it’s just private developers, sometimes a utility. I live in Georgia. We’ve got a traditional utility basically in charge of most of that power planning and they’re overseen by a Public Utility Commission, but overall they essentially say, “This is the power plant we’re going to build, can we have permission to please charge our customers for that?” Then the Commission says yes or no, essentially.

That’s very different from a place like Texas, or many other parts of the country, where I could show up and basically say, “Hello, I’d like to build a power plant and I would like you to let me sell it into your market.” There are different ownership structures, there are very different financing structures.

Where the government really does tend to come into play is in permitting. That sort of thing also differs jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but there is almost always government involvement.

KL How does this factor into resilience? On one hand it seems like the setup you’re describing could make things more resilient, since there’s a mix of infrastructures with different strengths and weaknesses as opposed to a bigger, more centrally controlled grid. When it comes to “resilience,” what would be the difference between a truly national type of grid that would be super-synchronized and this piecemeal way of managing the grid or grids?

EG The question to ask is always: Resilient to what? Resilient to climate change? Resilient to bankruptcy? Resilient to—? There are a variety of things that you can be resilient to that probably look quite different depending on what some of those jurisdictional boundaries are. In terms of resiliency to climate change in particular, though, more planning that’s more coordinated and has a fundamental policy goal associated with it is more helpful.

It doesn’t have to be this way, this is just a characteristic of the system as we have it, but there is a lot of regulatory capture in the energy industry and there is also quite a lot of lobbying that will sometimes lead to things that are consistent with responding to climate change and will sometimes lead to things that very much are not.

KL I always feel like these kinds of conversations can be really confusing for people as far as trying to figure out what they could do personally. I’m just curious, even for myself—how much of an impact could somebody make in their local area? Somebody who’s not an engineer. How could they go about affecting their energy system more locally?

EG This is one of these areas where there’s real strength in numbers. So much energy policy stuff is concentrated that a lot of what you can actually do in terms of daily decisions is not going to fall at the individual level. But because so much of it is also locally controlled, joining groups that are involved in community meetings about it or actually actively contributing to some of these policy conversations at a local level really makes a difference. It’s not all federal by any means.

Really getting involved in what a local utility might do, or checking out some of the many groups that are actually already focused on this—there’s a lot of strength in numbers and there’s a lot of strength in trying to engage the policy practice at a pretty local level.

KL With this window at the federal level, obviously there are huge long-term issues on the scale of twenty-five years, thirty years, fifty years. How much can happen in the next, let’s say, two to four years while the federal government is oriented this way? How much can that window move things forward, or does it just reverse again, if an administration with different priorities comes in?

EG Tons, actually. A lot of the times the regulatory stuff only really applies to new infrastructure or addresses the way that old infrastructure is operating, essentially. If you go build a whole bunch of solar farms in the next three years, just because there’s not a policy that’s incredibly encouraging of that type of event doesn’t mean those people are going to go tear down their solar plants in a few years.

Once the thing exists, it’s likely to keep running. Again, when that thing is a new coal plant, the same holds true: you know that that’s going to be a decades-long investment. A lot of the stuff that can be enacted by really focusing on steel on the ground does have quite a bit of longevity that goes beyond policy. At the same time, we have to build so much of this infrastructure that it’s not possible or even plausible to do that within the current administration.

To the extent that that does get done, directions do get chosen. There is some path dependency, just because of the way that physical infrastructure interacts with the world.

KL Is there a—I don’t know what you’d call it—business cycle phase change where fossil fuels just aren’t quite as ascendant and then you have this ascendant renewable energy industry that creates its own momentum to become the incumbent? Is that going to happen anyway just based on advances in technology? Does it need a lot of pushing? It sounds like both.

EG Yes, both. It depends place to place, too. I think this is one of the things that also surprises people when they get into this arena. It’s not a pure price competition by any means. There are a lot of parts of the country where brand-new solar probably would be cheaper than continuing to operate the plants that already exist. It doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s not just about, “Well, we have to wait until it’s cheap enough.” Solar and wind in the United States are some of the cheapest forms of electricity that we’ve ever seen, which is actually shocking when you think how about how much that wasn’t true ten years ago.

It’s not just that. It’s also making it legal to actually do it and pointing to some of the reasons why these types of energy systems do need turnover.

KL Is there anything else that you think generalists tend not to think about when they’re thinking about these issues?

EG I think we have a bit of a tendency to focus too much on the supply side and too much on the technical aspects of the energy system. If we’re thinking about trying to develop a just approach that accounts for a lot of the historical inequities and ongoing inequities that we see in these systems, what we really need to do is think about energy as an integrated system of infrastructure designed around trying to provide people services. I think this is a paradigm shift that is really, really, worth considering here.

It’s not just that you want the grid to be able to meet all demands at all times and that it needs to meet specific technical parameters. That’s certainly part of it, but we also need to think about things like, Can we design our cities differently? Can we design our buildings differently to actually reduce the amount of overall supply-side infrastructure we need to put into place? What happens when the power goes out? Do we know what we’re going to do under those circumstances?

Those types of things are part of the same conversation when you center it on providing energy services. They get left out almost entirely when you just focus on the grid.

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