Professor on Texas power outages: 'We failed to take the steps we need to weatherize'

Millions remain without power as winter storms sweep across the United States. University of Texas at Austin Energy Resources Professor Michael Webber joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: We begin this hour with developments out of Texas. More than two million homes still without power. That's at least according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The agency saying it has restored power to 600,000 homes so far. Let's bring in Michael Webber. He is chief science and technology officer at ENGIE and Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin. And Professor Webber, it's good to talk to you today. Let's start with the state of play, where things stand right now. I know you're in Austin, but how much improvement have you seen on the ground there in terms of power being restored? We just rattled through the numbers there, but what are you seeing?

MICHAEL WEBBER: Well there's some progress statewide. Some more people getting power, which is key because it's very cold and life is at risk if they are too cold for too long. But my personal situation got worse. My power went out five hours ago. So some people gaining power, some people losing power. We're not out of this mess yet.

ZACK GUZMAN: And Professor Webber, I mean, being an expert in this area, were you surprised at, kind of, maybe the lack of preparedness in this? Because this was a storm-- you know, it's not like an earthquake where nobody sees this coming. People were talking about how cold it was going to be across the state for a bit.

MICHAEL WEBBER: So I'm surprised but not surprised. So, in many ways I'm not surprised. We saw the storm coming. People like me who study the Texas grid or energy for a living we're warning our friends and family to get ready. There will probably be outages. We expect constraints and problems on the grid and with the natural gas supply system. So in many ways we saw this coming. And it's a really bad storm. So it's not a surprise that it would strain the system.

What's a little surprising is that we had the exact same kind of storm about a decade ago, almost to the day, at the end of January and beginning of February, 2011, that had the same kind of problems with natural gas supply and power outages and rolling blackouts. And it feels like we haven't learned enough lessons in the last 10 years if we're having the same failures today. It's a more difficult storm. It's colder, it's lasting longer, it's more statewide rather than regional. So it is a more difficult situation. But we're having the same problems and then some. So there is a surprise to this but also-- surprise which is we didn't prepare enough, but not a surprise, we all saw it coming.

AKIKO FUJITA: It's also not a surprise that in the aftermath of all this we've already seen sort of the natural gas side, the fossil fuels industry, as well as those who have been pushing for renewable, sort of already start this debate about, which is the more reliable energy grid here. When you talk about what we saw-- what we have seen play out over the last few days, is this really about infrastructure failure that's specific to Texas? Or can we draw from this something that's larger here about the energy mix that is necessary to be able to withstand these kind of temperatures?

MICHAEL WEBBER: So there are a couple of different lessons to learn from this. Texas, actually, has a fairly diverse supply mix which is great and really helpful. We don't have much hydroelectric, we don't have much geothermal, but we have nuclear, coal, gas, and wind and solar for the electricity mix. And then, of course, oil for transportation. So we have a diverse mix and all of those major fuels had a problem, frankly. So it's not necessarily the diversity of the mix. It's that we failed to take the steps we need to weatherize or make sure the system works even when it's cold. We prepare for a hot climate in Texas. We need to prepare for a cold climate as well because we have these storms every once in a while.

The bigger problem that's specific to Texas is that we have our own grid. There are three grids in America, east, west, and Texas. Our grid is isolated and for a variety of reasons this is a great advantage. But when the power goes out it's a disadvantage because we can't borrow power from other states nearby the way most states can. And so when we struggle we're basically on our own. And it would be nice to get some of that nuclear power from Arizona or wind from the Great Plains or solar from the Desert Southwest, but we're not able to lean on them because we're not connected.

Now, if I go through those five fuels I mentioned, we have a nuclear power plant offline because of a frozen pump, we have coal plants offline because of frozen equipment or frozen coal piles, we have some wind turbines offline because of ice on the blades, we have some solar panels offline because of snow on the panels, but the most spectacular failing is really in the natural gas system where we have over 20 gigawatts of natural gas power plants that aren't on, that we would like to be on and should be on, but they can't get the gas they need or their equipment is frozen. So really, this is the most difficult thing for Texas to admit as a huge natural gas state, our natural gas system is not delivering what we need. They're all having trouble but this is really a natural gas problem more than anything else right now.

AKIKO FUJITA: You talked about the cold snap that the state experienced 10 years ago. Roughly three million people without power back then, too. There were some reports that were done saying that these pipelines were not weatherized enough, and we've already heard from the governor there-- Governor Abbott-- saying that this is going to be brought up as an urgent matter in the legislature. Where was the failure, you think? Why, despite those warnings, were some of these pipelines not updated?

MICHAEL WEBBER: This is a great question. I'm sure there'll be a lot of conversation about that. We've had 10 years of preparation time since the last big cold snap like this and it seems like we're having the exact same kinds of mistakes. The governor did say we're going to have some scrutiny on ERCOT, the grid operator, but ERCOT's not responsible for the pipelines or the gas system. So I worry that there'll be some misdirected blame or scrutiny.

What happens with the natural gas system is you get what is called freeze offs, where water that moves with the gas out of the ground or is in the equipment will freeze if the pressure drops or if it gets too cold, and the frozen water clogs the lines or clogs the equipment so you can't move gas to our gas power plants or to other customers. And that's a big problem. And those freeze offs happened a decade ago, as well. You can deal with that. We produce gas in places like North Dakota and Canada and they don't have the freeze offs because they prepare the equipment appropriately. We're having the same freeze offs today that we had a decade ago.

Another problem is that some parts of the natural gas system are actually driven by electricity, like electric pumps and storage and compressors and this kind of thing. And so when the electricity goes out, it turns off the flow of gas, which turns off the gas power plant, which turns off more electricity, which creates a problem even worse. You get these kind of exacerbating or cascading failures that can happen as well.

ZACK GUZMAN: When it comes to maybe identifying what went wrong or what could have been done better to prevent all of this, it was kind of interesting to see how quickly Governor Abbott pointed the finger at wind turbines specifically, saying that it was proof that the Green New Deal would be, quote, "a deadly deal for America." That sparked a lot of conversation around that particular comment and the idea that perhaps he could have done more to maybe prepare for this. I mean, what do you make of that maybe being characterized as a attempt to dodge accountability in preparation?

MICHAEL WEBBER: I think blaming the Green New Deal for our problems is essentially absurd because the Green New Deal doesn't exist. It's a possible future policy. And to blame a future possible policy on the last 80 years of decisions we made as a state really is ridiculous. And in particular, the last 10 years of decisions we made are not affected by the Green New Deal. So this is ridiculous.

The wind turbines give us a diverse supply of energy and they're giving us electricity and that's been good. We've lost several gigawatts of wind. That's bad. We should weatherize the wind turbines. We've lost some solar power. That's bad. We should weatherize them. But we really lost a lot of gas power. That's what we really depend on when it comes to weather like this. And Texas is the number three gas producer in the world behind Russia and the United States.

And so for us, Texas, a huge gas producer, to not have enough gas, I think, is really a blow to our cultural ethos and that's some of what you're hearing. Well, we can't blame gas, we can't blame ourselves. Let's blame wind or the grid operator or politicians out of state who want a Green New Deal. I mean, I think federal policy isn't touching this. The Green New Deal is irrelevant. Californians aren't touching this. This is a self-made thing in Texas. It's our own grid and our own decisions.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, the finger pointing pretty swift in the aftermath of these massive power outages. Michael Webber, it's good to talk to you today. Chief science and technology officer at ENGIE as well as a professor at the University of Texas in Austin.