(CN) — “Seconds and minutes.”
That’s how close the Texas electric grid came to a complete collapse.
The startling detail from a historic winter storm was revealed last week as hundreds of thousands of Texans were still suffering from a lack of power and heat amid bitterly cold temperatures.
As the state’s electric grid managers rushed to get the lights back on, they also defended their handling of the crisis, insisting that if they had not initiated a series of purposeful power outages at the height of the storm, the entire grid could have spiraled into a monthslong “catastrophic” blackout.
Still, the resulting dayslong power outages amounted to a seemingly unfathomable tragedy in the nation’s top energy-producing state, where millions of barrels of fossil fuels are pulled from the ground every day and sprawling fields of wind turbines point the way to the world’s green energy future.
At least 30 people in Texas died from the storm and the so-called rolling blackouts, including an 11-year-old boy, who allegedly succumbed to hypothermia as his family huddled together in their powerless Houston-area mobile home.
While some politicians and state leaders quickly and inaccurately pinned the blame solely on frozen wind farms, experts who have actually studied energy issues for years say the problems the storm revealed can’t be solved by picking your favorite energy source and will require mandates – not requests – for a stronger electric grid.
“The solutions aren’t that difficult,” said Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Drive a little further north and these kinds of problems don’t happen.”
As Texas lawmakers gear up for hearings Thursday on what could be done to prevent a similar disaster, the experts say leaders have to avoid repeating their response to a 2011 winter storm that also left people shivering in the dark.
“There needs to be something that mandates reliability,” said Krane. “Whatever actions anybody took after 2011 didn’t work.”
Joshua Rhodes, a Texas electric grid researcher at the Webber Energy Group, echoed that idea, saying this month’s storm was the “predictable result” of the state’s response a decade ago, which centered mostly on voluntarily infrastructure upgrades and tweaks to procedures within the power sector.
This time around, Rhodes said, leaders should require companies to make changes rather than just asking for them. They should also take a much broader look at how prepared the state is for the storms of the future, he said.
“What I wish we would do, what I’d hope we would do, is have that hard conversation, like, okay, climate change is going to increase variability of weather,” Rhodes said. “That doesn’t just mean hotter, drier summers. We need to make sure that our infrastructure is set up for that.”
Rhodes pointed to one specific way to bring about that change: officials could reconfigure natural gas market rules, where companies would be contractually obligated to upgrade their systems.
“You can say, ‘thou shall do this if you want to participate in our market,’” he said.
Even the state’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott, traditionally no big fan of telling companies what to do, has called for legislation that would mandate winterization improvements.
“The big question is, do those who invest capital in Texas believe that this is going to happen again?” Rhodes said. “Do you believe that this event is enough to incentivize that, or is the event too much of a black swan that investment won’t make it, so we need to just force the market to be ready?”
Dan Patrick, the state’s staunchly conservative lieutenant governor, has said he’s on board with some kind of reforms from lawmakers.