Before Texas, Feds Warned of ‘Catastrophic’ Blackouts Due to Fossil Fuel Failures—But Did Nothing

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Image: THOMAS SHEA/AFP via Getty Images

Three years before Texas experienced the largest forced power outages in American history, President Trump was warned by his own advisors that the US was in danger of experiencing a “catastrophic power outage” that would “outmatch” existing national plans and capabilities. Among the main culprits of this vulnerability, they argued, was an aging electricity grid heavily dependent on oil and natural gas. 

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Blackouts that rolled across Texas last week left more than 4 million Americans without power for days at below freezing temperatures. The power outages also left millions without safe drinking water as water pumps and treatment plants went down. Dozens died as a result of the extreme cold. 

This crisis was not only foreseeable, but warned about repeatedly over many years. Its principal cause was not the shutdown of wind and solar power, as falsely claimed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Nor was it anything to do with the Biden administration’s Green New Deal, as Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy implied. 

The warning to Trump 

Although the narrative of renewables bringing down the grid has whipsawed across conservative media outlets, the real vulnerabilities were explained in detail in a US government study commissioned by the Trump administration. The findings of this report had not yet been resurfaced since the Texas disaster until this article. 

The study, Surviving a Catastrophic Power Outage, was published by the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) in 2018. Its core finding now seems unnervingly prescient: 

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“After interviews with dozens of senior leaders and experts and an extensive review of studies and statutes, we found that existing national plans, response resources, and coordination strategies would be outmatched by a catastrophic power outage… that could leave large parts of the nation without power for weeks or months, and cause service failures in other sectors—including water and wastewater, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services—that are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security.”  

The report urged the need for “significant public and private action” to prepare for this eventuality, including recommendations for all levels—federal, state, territories, cities and localities. Yet few if any of these recommendations were actually followed through. 

Although it mentioned a few examples of potential triggers for a catastrophic blackout, from natural disasters like wildfires to “cyber-physical” attacks, the report avoided direct discussion of what might cause such a crisis. 

It’s the oil and gas, stupid!

Even so, the report nowhere mentions renewable energy as a potential reason for America’s growing vulnerability to blackouts. Instead, it devotes an entire section to vulnerabilities in the “Oil and Natural Gas Sector.” 

The report warned that “a break in the flow of electricity could disrupt the flow of gas when backup power runs out, which could cause further fuel interruptions. This growing interdependency creates risks of cascading, mutually-reinforcing failures across both the Electricity Subsector and Oil and Natural Gas Subsector.” 

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It went on to describe this risk in considerable, almost excruciating detail, essentially highlighting that the fundamental danger was too much dependence on hydrocarbon energy sources:  

“Reliance on a single fuel creates the danger of ‘common mode failures’ where a lack of natural gas incapacitates multiple generators simultaneously, which could create power outages lasting a month or longer over multiple regions of the US.”  

In other words, the Texas blackout, unprecedented as it was, came nowhere near the scale of the worst-case scenarios identified in this document.

“During a catastrophic outage, on-site fuel supplies for emergency generators will quickly be depleted,” the report went on. “Massive, multi-sector requirements for fuel resupply would occur, and contractors responsible for resupply operations will likely be unable to meet these requirements.”  

It specifically gave New England as an example, noting that “it has a high reliance on natural gas supply and LNG imports to meet winter peak loads.” A limited number of pipelines and supporting gas infrastructure means that if even a single natural gas compressor station or other gas system facility is lost, this “would create recurring energy shortages that would cause frequent and long rolling blackouts.” 

Triggering catastrophe – a forewarning of complex emergencies 

A prolonged blackout could in turn disrupt supply chains, the report found. “Natural gas disruptions could also cause ripple effects across supply chains, whose corruption could pose significant challenges.”  

Especially vulnerable are water supplies, due to reciprocal and mutual interlinkages between water and energy, through mining, fuel production, hydropower, and power plant cooling. Noting that water pumping, treatment, and distribution needs energy (along with the discharging of wastewater), the document warned that a major driver of risk is the projected rise in water consumption by 50 percent from 2005 to 2030. The other problem is that thermal power plants used by fossil fuels are using increasing quantities of energy.  

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“Without water services, factories shut down, hospitals close, communities are disrupted, and most hotels, restaurants, and businesses cease operations,” the report warned. “If water and wastewater systems failed in communities across multiple states or US regions, the societal consequences and risk to the lives and safety of affected populations would be difficult to overestimate.” 

Head in the sand 

The problem is that the Trump administration’s most important proposed solution to build resiliency was no solution at all. Central to its list of recommendations was the report’s myopic focus on ensuring that “all critical natural gas transmission pipeline infrastructure has the appropriate standards, design, and practices to continue service during a catastrophic power outage and maintain rapid availability.”  

Yet the document failed to address the underlying problems of an aging and outmoded industrial-era national grid that is no longer fit for purpose—incapable of withstanding the converging forces of rising demand and accelerating climate disasters. Which helps explain why utilities have done little to upgrade the ailing grid. 

That’s why what happened in Texas was unfortunately a taste of things to come on a business-as-usual trajectory. 

Blackout future? 

Seven years ago, I reported for Motherboard that “industrialized countries face a future of increasingly severe blackouts… due to the proliferation of extreme weather events, the transition to unconventional fossil fuels, and fragile national grids that cannot keep up with rocketing energy demand.” 

The prediction was based on a study published in the Journal of Urban Technology, whose authors professors Hugh Byrd and Steve Matthewman described blackouts as “dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity.” 

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Since then, the data has borne out this grim prediction. Over the last decades, the US has experienced an increasing number and intensity of blackouts. There have been over 2,500 major outages since 2002, nearly half of which were caused by severe weather events. Put another way, there has been an overall 67 percent increase in weather-related blackouts since 2000, affecting two thirds of American states. 

Data from the US Energy Information Administration shows that since 2013, the average duration of power blackouts experienced by US citizens has increased by 300 percent, from two to nearly six hours by 2018. The US now suffers from 147 big blackouts a year, and rising. 

Texas: oil state in denial 

Texas is among the worst offenders, having experienced 105 blackouts over the last two decades, at increasing frequency. 

In the February 2020 crisis, the state’s own Electric Reliability Council confirmed that natural gas providers were the primary cause of the crisis. Nearly half the state’s gas production was shut down, along with at least one nuclear plant. Meanwhile, wind turbine failures accounted for just 13 percent of outages. In fact, thermal sources, such as coal, gas and nuclear lost nearly twice as much power due to the cold than renewable energy sources. 

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And the crisis in Texas did not stay in Texas.  

Blackouts swept across Ohio, Mississippi and other states, and left 2.5 million without power in seven northern Mexican states. A third of US oil production ground to a halt, and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted.

This sort of scenario involving a rolling series of power, water, and infrastructure crises triggered by extreme weather is consistent with the warnings of a separate report commissioned by the Pentagon in 2019. That document went so far as to warn that the US military itself might be at risk of collapsing in two decades under the strain of responding to complex domestic emergencies triggered by climate change.

In this context, the Texas blackouts are a dry-run for the severe costs of business-as-usual, pointing to the urgent need to invest in real alternatives.

So what next? 

Perhaps most ironic of all is the fact that the Trump administration had separately commissioned research which identifies the alternative.  

Another 2018 report published by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that solar panels combined with battery storage could provide a more resilient power system to protect against blackouts than gas or diesel.  

“Diesel generators are often viewed as the default solution for providing resilient power, but they might not always be the most reliable or cost-effective solution,” the report stated. “Reliance on traditional fuel reduces an energy system’s resilience because a disruption or contamination in the fuel supply can cause vulnerabilities. Using solar power to charge on-site energy storage offers unique benefits that traditional diesel-fueled backup power systems cannot. As a result, solar technology combined with energy storage is increasingly being implemented in resilient power system designs.” 

The report concluded that as extreme weather and widespread power outages are increasingly revealing the limitations of traditional solutions, “more businesses and building owners are likely to consider the value of resilience and the viability of PV and storage to avoid outage-related losses.” 

But this hasn’t happened in Texas—where incumbent fossil dependent utilities hold sway, and appear unwilling to concede ground despite the horrific costs. 

The case to transition to a different energy and electric system, however, could not be stronger; especially when that case is inadvertently corroborated by multiple US government research studies commissioned under Trump.