Future Fuel

Austin’s Recent Energy Crisis

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This is my first winter in Austin, Texas, and lucky me, it’s one of the coldest Austin has had in a while. Last week, the United States experienced a 2,000 mile long storm that stretched across the country. Here in Texas we experienced freezing rain and some light snow. But it was the cold that knocked out the power grid. Some in Austin had to endure rolling blackouts that ended up leaving them with less power on than off – for hours on end.

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I lucked out – I had checked the blackout zone on the Austin Energy website and my apartment complex had just missed a major outage possibly by feet.

Two pipes froze and broke at a power station. This curtailed the energy from that station, putting a load on other power plants. Then, the natural gas pressure in some supply lines dropped due to the low temperatures. The outages in Texas led to outages in New Mexico and a chain reaction of energy problems across the Southwest. Econoblogger Chris Martenson wrote the following in a Martenson Insider report about the “lessons” he learned from watching the energy fiasco:

The first is that complex systems behave in unpredictable ways. Nobody knew that a little bit of cold would lead to the set of behaviors exhibited by the highly interconnected energy production and distribution system in the southwest.

The second is that our national energy grid is not ready to handle the dreams of those promoting the idea that we can just run our country on the immense natural gas finds of recent years. If the pipeline system in the southwest couldn’t handle a couple of cold days, imagine trying to plug 30,000,000 vehicles into the system. Certainly someday we could do that, but not right now. There is an incredible number of infrastructure upgrades to be done first.

He may be right. What’s interesting to me is how much people seem to disagree on how to handle our future energy needs. In scanning through various comments on news articles during the blackouts, it seems a lot of people want to bash the push towards alternative energy as causing these problems. One common scapegoat was a Dallas mayor, who was blamed for blocking new power plants over environmental concerns. It also seems to be a go-to to mock solar power and wind power.

It may well be that in order to feed the energy needs of future Americans we’d have to make some horrible environmental concessions to do so and use “clean” coal or nuclear power. On the other hand, I don’t understand why some people are so down on alternatives. It’s almost like, because environmentalists don’t like coal, people who are against environmentalists will be against anything smacking of “alternative energy” just to be contrary.

Yet, driving from El Paso to Austin, I saw an incredible amount of wind turbines. Set up in areas that would otherwise not have much else except tumbleweeds. They apparently have problems when it freezes, but most of the year they do contribute quite a bit of power. I also continually wonder how much power would be generated if every American house that had any sunlight coming to it had solar panels on the roof.

Certainly here in Austin, which has a tremendous amount of sun even in the winter, I see an appalling lack of solar panels on homes. And Austin is supposed to be more into that sort of thing.

We’ve got to find a way to reach out to average Americans and help them get behind the search for alternative energy. I’m not sure how to do that – it seems like there’s a bizarre resistance to it that is partly due to people being annoyed at environmentalists. Well yes, some environmentalists can get annoying in their preachiness, but no more so than some extremist holy rollers. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, I say.

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