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Millions remain without power in frigid temperatures after major winter storm

Millions of American remained without power in frigid temperatures Tuesday as the U.S. continues to grapple with the effects of a major storm. The demand for energy is taxing power grids, most significantly in Texas. Stephanie Sy speaks with Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy program at the Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment, to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some of the worst winter weather on record is disrupting much of the nation's life again tonight. Extreme conditions have claimed at least 15 lives stemming from a variety of causes, including a tornado.

    Stephanie Sy has our report.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Southeastern North Carolina today, downed power lines and homes ripped off their foundations.

  • Edward Conrow:

    This is going to be — take a lot of hard work, effort, between cleanup, rebuilding.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Officials say at least three people were killed and 10 others injured by a tornado that ripped through Brunswick County just after midnight. It struck with little warning near Ocean Ridge Plantation, a coastal community some 45 miles South of Wilmington.

  • Edward Conrow:

    We have a lot of hard work to do as a community to get it back to normal, to make the community safe for the residents to go back in to the areas that were unaffected. But it's definitely a very hazardous situation with debris, homes damaged, stuff all over the place.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Elsewhere, more chaos from an unrelenting weather pattern that's gripped much of the country. Winter storm advisories by the National Weather Service again today stretched from coast to coast.

    Bitter cold engulfed cities across New England and the eastern Great Lakes. Chicago woke up to more than a foot of snow, with more falling by the hour and dangerous windchills.

  • Man:

    You really have to hold your ground, I mean, seriously. You have to very — got to stand sturdy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the Southern Plains, record cold temperatures extended to another day. The surge in demand for energy has prompted more utilities across Central and Western states linked to the same power grid to initiate rolling blackouts. Today, in Oklahoma, more than 130,000 homes and businesses were without power.

    In Texas, largely on its own electric grid, four million were in the dark.

  • Woman:

    It's cold, kids around, trying to stay warm, fireplace. There's no firewood anywhere, no stores open.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Many rush to hotels to keep warm.

  • Woman:

    The temperature being so low, it gets so cold in my house so fast.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While others turn to shelters.

    But, in Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said space is running out.

  • Sylvester Turner:

    Because of COVID and the health care protocols, we simply can't take any more. We have gone significantly over and above what we had scheduled, what we had planned.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Texas Governor Greg Abbott deployed the National Guard to conduct welfare checks until power is restored.

    The weather brought COVID vaccine distribution to a halt in some places, amid icy road conditions and widespread airport shutdowns. And it closed the Houston Ship Channel and Gulf Coast refineries, spiking the price of oil.

    Just to underscore the scale of this deep freeze, the National Weather Service put out a list of 20 cities from the Gulf Coast up through the Great Plains that are seeing record low temperatures today.

    The demand is taxing the capacities of energy grids, most significantly in Texas.

    To help us understand what's happening, I'm joined by Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

    Michael, thank you for joining us.

    You know, Texas is the largest energy producer in the entire United States. How is it that residents there are in a situation of multiple days of power outages?

  • Michael Wara:

    Well, it's a combination of two factors.

    One is really unprecedented demand for electricity during the wintertime. The demand for power has exceeded the grid planners' worst-case scenario by a significant degree. Also, power plants are not performing as expected, especially natural gas-fired power plants, in Texas right now.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know it's interesting, because some have actually used the energy crisis in the last couple of days in Texas to point out that Texas' turn towards renewable energy, namely wind power, is more the issue.

    Why do you say natural gas is the problem?

  • Michael Wara:

    Well, I think let me just say it's a complex set of factors.

    But what we know right now is that the wind power plants are mostly meeting their expected performance levels. But what is not happening in Texas is that many of the thermal power plants, the plants that boil water to make electricity, like natural gas-fired power plants, coal-fired power plants, and at least one nuclear unit, are not producing energy.

    They're suffering outages. And that dwarfs the amount of wind resource that's not performing right now. So, it really is a traditional power plant problem, not a clean energy problem.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    OK, but this is Texas. And they are not used to in February having peak demand for heating, for electricity. Could this have been anticipated in any way? And what does this say about the need to perhaps update infrastructure?

  • Michael Wara:

    Well, I think this raises really important questions about how grid planners think about extreme events in the context of climate change.

    We saw in California this summer unprecedented heat waves that led to outages. And now in Texas, in the winter, we are seeing an unprecedented cold snap. And this kind of extreme weather is what scientists believe is most likely to occur during climate change.

    And so it suggests to me that planners need to be updating their forecasts to take account at the extremes that are likely to come our way.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And what can be done in the near term that is realistic to update the nation's power grids to deal with extreme weather events, which you point out climate change is expected to bring more of, not just in Texas, but in California, on the East Coast as well?

  • Michael Wara:

    Stephanie, I think you used exactly the right word there when you said, what can be done with the power grids?

    The most important step that the United States could take would be to invest in building in a truly national transmission system. That's something that President Biden has suggested might be a good idea as a stimulus program. There's no question that having a national architecture for our power system would help us to avoid circumstances like what is happening in Texas and in the Midwest as well right now.

    If we had wires stretching from coast to coast, the places that had problems could lean on the places where there isn't bad weather, like where you and I are today.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And are you confident that renewable energy sources, like solar, like wind, that the technology exists to store those energies the same way that natural gas would be, so that those transmission lines could actually reliably and flexibly carry that energy to customers?

  • Michael Wara:

    Well, there's no question that long-term storage, particularly in the winter, is a really difficult technological challenge that we really don't have all the answers for yet.

    But we could certainly produce a lot more of our electric power from clean resources than we do today, and do it reliably and safely, if we had a more robust transmission system. I think, in the long run, we're going to have to solve some difficult technological problems. But that's in the long run.

    Today, we could put much more wind and solar on the grid and serve everyone's needs, but we are going to need to build a more robust mechanism for getting that power to where it's needed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, there are a lot of people in freezing cold temperatures right now in Texas and elsewhere in the country that are hoping for some solutions.

    Michael Wara with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, thanks for joining us.

  • Michael Wara:

    Thanks for having me.

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