Having grown up in Minnesota, the second-coldest state in the continental United States, Mia Brooks smiled at the thought of the year-round soggy Southern heat before moving to Texas.
But as climate change makes summer more oppressive nationwide, it’s made Southern winters particularly more intense. Over the past two decades, the South’s winter and spring months have cooled substantially more than the rest of the country.
This reality was made no more explicit than in February 2021, when temperatures in her new home in Houston dropped to the teens. A few hundred miles north, temperatures in Dallas reached -2 degrees, the most frigid in eight decades, as more than 4 million Texans lost power.
Texas’ grid was not prepared for the demand — leaving Brooks and other Black residents most susceptible to the life-threatening fallout from power outages. During that storm, Black households were nearly two times more likely to experience an outage for at least 24 consecutive hours compared to white households.
Two years later, the grid is still at risk, according to a new forecast by North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which regulates the U.S. and Canada’s electric grids. The nation’s second-most populated state joins dozens of others in this recognition.
The forecast found that power grids that supply more than half of the U.S. population across large swaths of the South, Midwest, and Northeast may run short of electricity if extended cold snaps or severe storms happen this coming winter.
The outlook is one of the most dire in recent memory, regulators said, adding that it is “unacceptable and should be cause for concern for all Americans.”
The threat of darkness underscores the challenges the country has faced in attempting to wean off fossil fuel energy sources as the impacts of climate change become increasingly evident.
It also emphasizes how some state governments have failed to show Americans how climate change is contributing to everyday events, particularly for Black residents, said Cassia Herron, a climate justice activist in the South.
Just as fossil fuel pollution from coal and gas energy plants most negatively impacts Black Americans, grid failures, too, disproportionately impact Black folks, who are most likely to live in unreliable service areas.
“During these weather events, as we like to call them, there’s very little mention of climate change and even less conversation about how it relates to our need to make sure that we have a reliable grid for everyone,” said Herron, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, which ranks third in the nation in deaths due to pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The power grid has traditionally faced its most strain during the summer, but a confluence of factors, including increased severe weather, population growth, and an over-reliance on fossil fuel energy sources, has led the grid to now be equally unstable during winter months.
The report found that Western states like California and Washington, which are most aggressively shifting away from fossil fuels, have the lowest risk of power outages this winter. Since 2016, over half of the nation’s largest weather disaster-caused power outages have impacted Southern states.
Studies show that without electricity, people die at elevated rates.
The nation’s primary concern is the regular disruptions of natural gas generation and distribution during cold spells, as power plants and the pipelines that deliver fuel to them are thwarted by ice. They’ve been intensified recently by right-leaning state legislatures across the South that have increased the region’s dependence on natural gas.
For this reason, Herron said, “not only [do] we need to diversify the power that turns our lights on, but we literally need to diversify who has the power to make these decisions.”
The slow churn of the nation’s clean energy shift
During that four-day February snowstorm, Brooks lost power and water for nearly a week as snow and sleet pelted the state, greased roads, fractured electricity poles, and froze water purification systems. “I’m from the cold, but I never experienced anything like that,” she said, adding it was far more frightening than living through 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the strongest and most deadly hurricane to hit Houston.
An estimated 700 Texans died during the February 2021 snowstorm as millions sat, shivering in the dark for days. The majority of the state was “seconds and minutes” away from having blackouts for well over a month, said Bill Magness, the former CEO of ERCOT, the state’s electric grid operator.
Last week, the federal government made $43 million available to Texas residents still struggling to recover from the nearly three-year-old storm, which news reports say led to an uptick in bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The impacts of the storm and 2021 grid failure are still being realized, especially as the grid failed again this past winter. Texas’ legislature used the 2021 storm to abandon its clean energy push in favor of fossil fuels, despite most of the power knocked offline coming from natural gas.
The national report released last week warned that the state is at higher risk of energy shortages this year than last because it has failed to weatherize its energy infrastructure and is still not meeting goals to bring more power online to support the 3 million new residents it’s seen since 2015.
However, Texas is not unique in this failure. From the New England states to North Carolina and Arkansas, states have struggled to meet increased demands and weatherize pipelines and plants to handle unpredictable weather patterns.
Although some states have found immediate success with shifting to more renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels, the report said a mass and swift shift could further disrupt grid reliability because states have not mastered ways to efficiently store power from these sources to be used during times of highest demand.
Still, the report makes clear that fossil fuel generation bears the largest share of responsibility for faulty grids. A series of recent studies showed that an electric grid that is 70% to 90% dependent on wind and solar sources would be able to match the nation’s growing energy demand and perform well under extreme weather.
“We’ve got an opportunity right now in this next generation to really become the innovators of the system,” said Herron. “We just have to be allowed to do it in spite of industry figures — and their supportive politicians – in the way.”