The Texas catastrophic blackouts: Lessons for developing countries

  • Date: 06/03/21
  • Tilak Doshi, Forbesd

For planners and politicians of the developing countries, most of which are signatories to the (non-binding) Paris Agreement, hectored constantly about the need to “transition” from fossil fuels, the Texas debacle provides ironic education when the chips are down in the richest country in the world.

The recent severe snowstorm in the US led to a catastrophic power outage in Texas leaving millions of people without access to power or heat for several days, with a mounting death toll that has yet to be fully tallied. The state was about 4 minutes and seconds away from a total grid collapse that would have left the state’s residents for weeks or months without power. If that were to have happened, tens of thousands of people would have been at the risk of freezing to death.  

Political leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America, well aware that reliable and affordable electricity for their burgeoning middle classes is a pre-requisite of staying in office, would no doubt incredulously ask “How could this happen in Texas, the energy power-house of the US, the country which surpassed Russia in 2011 to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas and overtook Saudi Arabia in 2018 to become the world’s largest producer of oil?”

Energy planners and grid engineers in many developing countries work with creaky grid infrastructure and frequent breakdowns lead many of their customers to own diesel gen-sets as ready backups. The irony will not be lost: last week, President Biden ordered the federal government to provide diesel generators and diesel fuel along with other assistance to Texas amid the power outages brought on by extreme cold. […]

Policy lessons of the Texas debacle

For energy policy makers around the world, the lessons of the Texas debacle will be a warning sign in their own planning for power grid reliability and resilience to adverse events. Thus, UK’s The Telegraph ran a headline: “Blackouts in energy-rich Texas are a wake-up call for knife-edge Britain.” However, gleaning policy lessons will not be straight-forward.

Alas if that were but true. For those whose professional work is in the engineering, economics and public policy aspects of power grids, the Texas debacle has been a long time coming. Decades of policy preferences in Texas in favour of weather-dependent, intermittent “renewable energy” – read solar and wind – added 20 GW of capacity since 2015 while retiring coal power plants and barely adding to natural gas capacity. More than $80 billion in Federal subsidies were spent on wind and solar during 2010 – 2019; an additional average of $1.5 billion is spent annually on state subsidies for renewable energy. A deregulated market that rewards power generation without requiring reliable capacity ready to supply power as needed naturally tilted the field in favour of intermittent solar and wind power.

A most consequential irony

For planners and politicians of the developing countries, most of which are signatories to the (non-binding) Paris Agreement, hectored constantly about the need to “transition” from fossil fuels, the Texas debacle provides ironic education beyond just the rushed dependence on diesel generators when the chips are down in the richest country in the world.

Among the first actions by Joe Biden, the first US “climate president,” was to re-join the Paris Agreement. His international climate czar John Kerry met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to mark America’s re-entry barely days after the worst of the Texas tragedy. Convinced that the Earth has 9 years to avert the worst consequences of the “climate crisis” and “there’s no faking it on this one,” Mr. Kerry called on the world’s big emitting countries, including China, India, and Russia to “really step up,” cut fossil fuel use and “raise their ambition” to “fight against climate change.” The irony however is lost on Mr. Kerry. He goes around lecturing poorer countries on the need for raised ambitions to fight climate change when it is those very same ambitions that likely contributed to the tragic debacle in Texas.

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