An environmental advocacy group’s report warns “as extreme weather events become more common and electrical infrastructure continues to age, the number of outages is only likely to increase.” This report says Texans already experience more power outages than any other state.
Diego Mendoza-Moyers, business reporter covering energy, manufacturing and labor for the San Antonio Express News, spoke with Texas Standard about the reasons the state topped the list. Listen to the interview in the player above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: First, tell us about who published this report and where did this data come from?
Diego Mendoza-Moyers: So it’s a group called Climate Central, a climate advocacy group trying to raise awareness about resiliency issues with the grid, and the data comes from the Department of Energy. And really, it just looks at major outages in which 50,000 customers or more went out for some period of time. It looks at a 20-year period from about 2001 to 2021. That’s really the basis of the data, the Department of Energy. Utilities kind of have their own kind of resiliency measures, but that’s how the Department of Energy looks at it — as whether 50,000 customers or more went out for some period of time.
If you’re talking about 50,000 customers, you’re talking about a fairly major outage. We’re not talking about a neighborhood here and there and, you know, spotty outages that you might experience. I have to say that, when I heard Texas was at the top of this list, I thought ‘but what about California?’ It seems like California is one of these perennial top-of-listers when it comes to outages.
Well, sure. California was third on the list. So, you know, they were up there. But I think, when you consider that Texas is the second most populous state — the second largest state in the union — it would make sense that we have more power outages, generally speaking, right? Just the fact that you have more infrastructure means, you know, more opportunities for things to go wrong and more outages. So I don’t think that was necessarily a surprise. But, you know, certainly I think every state kind of sees their own issue. You know, we Texans, we deal with hurricanes along the Gulf Coast that affect our reliability. California deals with some really serious drought. So state by state requires and has their own issues.
What’s also interesting is seeing the number of blackouts apparently increasing significantly from decade to decade. Can you explain those changes?
Yeah, well, I think there’s a number of factors. I think some people might point to the more frequent extreme weather events that throw the power grid off. But I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, some people might point to the proliferation of renewables on the grid. There’s also kind of factors – natural gas and coal power plants aren’t quite as cost effective as maybe they once were with renewables on the grid. So I think the changing energy mix certainly affects reliability. I’m not trying to put all the blame on renewables, but I think that, if you look at 20 years ago, the make up of the fuel that powered the grid is quite a bit different today. And so I think that certainly plays into it.
I think some people might say, though, ‘electricity is electricity’ and you can adapt the source of that electricity to match the power grid, but that power grid’s getting older.
Sure, and I’m here in San Antonio, and CPS Energy right now, they just signed a deal to add more solar power because a couple of their natural gas-fired power plants that were built in the 1960s and 1970s are starting to just age out. And so we’re seeing those issues all across the state here in San Antonio. I mean, the coal power plant that was built, oh, I think 30 years ago, was out for several weeks this summer because of mechanical problems. And, you know, even one of CPS energy’s newest natural gas power plants was out for a month because of mechanical problems. So I think we’re just seeing, you know, the real intense heat this summer straining these machines that are, you know, in some cases a half century old. And so I think that’s really contributing to some of these outages more recently.
Diego, I know the report didn’t quite go as deep as you have. You’ve been looking into how utilities from various parts of the state did during Winter Storm Uri, right?
All 254 counties of Texas were experiencing really severe freezing. And if you look at it across the state, certainly along the Gulf Coast, there’s just going to be more outages there, generally speaking, because of storms and things like that than San Antonio or Austin. We know our grid kind of performed worst than neighboring states. So certainly I think Winter Storm Uri is kind of adding to this ranking for Texas, for sure.