Last Saturday, a massive storm — officially named Winter Storm Uri — descended upon the state of Texas, bringing snow, temperatures lower than parts of Alaska and then chaos.
Along with the frighteningly cold temperatures, the state started to experience mass blackouts and power outages as the power grid buckled under the demand of so many people trying to heat their homes at once.
As of Thursday morning, February 18th, some half a million homes and businesses in the state were still without power.
Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir, director of MaREI, The Science Foundation of Ireland Research Center for Energy, Climate and Marine joined Jonathan Healy on The Pat Kenny Show this week to discuss the ongoing situation in Texas.
“They're more set up to deal with the warmth than they are with the cold. And that's one of the challenges,” Professor Ó Gallachóir told Jonathan.
What’s wind got to do with it?
One of the issues raised has been around whether or not wind energy was a contributing factor in the blackouts as photos began to circulate on social media of broken wind turbines with icicles hanging from them. Jonathan put the question to Professor Ó Gallachóir and he explained this theory isn’t exactly correct, there are a lot of factors at play.
“The population in Texas is around 30 million, so about six times our population… They get about 20% of their electricity from wind energy in a given year. In Ireland, we have about double that, but they're doing well. In the US context, they're doing very well.
Normally, Texas has its peak of electricity demand in the summer, not in the winter. And the hot weather pushes up the demand for air conditioners.
The electricity grid in Texas is also quite isolated and this is unusual in the States. So that's another challenge because that means they have to meet their own electricity requirements, essentially, themselves.
And this cold weather caused a peak growth in electricity demand, which was 20% higher than was expected. And that's a key factor in causing the blackouts.
So their electricity demand was much higher than they expected because of the cold. And in parallel with that, they had a much larger number of power plants that were offline than expected. And about 30 gigawatts of the 70 gigawatts of gas and coal power plants were not available.
And those were the main factors. The increase in the peak electricity demand, and this large amount of unavailable gas. So wind energy was expected to contribute and to provide about six gigawatts. And it provided less than that, about three gigawatts. But that's not nearly as significant as the impact of the unavailability, if you like, of the gas fired electricity generation.”
Could the same thing happen in Ireland?
In Ireland, we get approximately 40% of our electricity through wind energy and as Jonathan pointed out, this week alone this rose to near 60% due to good wind conditions so we are well suited to have a large proportion of our power supplied via wind turbines, unlike the current situation in Texas. But that’s not always the case, it does fluctuate.
“We had our own challenges in early January because there was a period of low wind and there was a period of cold. But we do have more resilience, if you like, in our electricity system. So the gas power plants were able to do their job.
So it's really, it's looking at it from a systems perspective is important here. And so while we had a cold snap and low wind in early January, we were able to cover for that. And as you say, more recently, we've also had a cold spot recently where wind was relatively high. So when the wind is there, of course, we can use it well, but we need to make sure that the system is resilient enough to take into account times when the wind may not be there,” Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir explained.
Unfortunately, Texans haven’t been afforded the same resilience in their systems to weather this storm but Governor Greg Abbott has since now directed the state’s natural-gas producers to redirect any external fuel sales to local power providers to provide relief.
To learn more about climate research and other interesting topics, you can tune into Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir on Green Scene, sponsored by ESB, on The Pat Kenny Show every Wednesday or catch up here.