What Kenya and the rest of Africa can learn from the recent Texas power outage
Texas is the largest power producing and power consuming state in the US. It is also the only state with a self-contained grid that is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT links 46,500 miles of transmission lines and over 650 power generation facilities to supply electricity to upwards of 26 million customers. Additionally, the system operator manages the state’s deregulated energy market. As of 2019, Texas’s electricity demand was primarily met through natural gas-fired power stations (47.4 per cent). The balance of the demand was satisfied through 23 per cent coal, 20 per cent wind, 10.8 per cent, 1.1 per cent solar, 0.2 per cent hydroelectric, 0.1 per cent biomass, with other sources accounting for less than 0.1 per cent.
In February 2021, a winter storm hit Texas bringing snow, ice and sub-freezing temperatures. The icy conditions triggered a surge in demand for heating and indoor lighting while at the same time freezing up natural gas wellheads, wind turbine blades, pipelines as well as the cooling systems of coal and nuclear power stations. The resulting loss of capacity coupled with the demands on the grid forced ERCOT to enforce rotating power outages so as to ration supply and avert a total grid collapse. The outages cut off power to more than four million homes and businesses and have been linked to over 50 deaths, the collapse of the state’s water systems and economic damages in excess of US$120bn.
From the discussions by experts and officials, the Texas power crisis can be attributed to, extreme weather conditions, exceptional electricity demand, a non-weather-resistant energy system, poor predictive planning, as well as the state’s laissez-faire energy market and its independent grid. In this regard, Africa and Texas have some similarities and African countries can learn important lessons n designing, planning and operating their energy systems.
The winter storm in Texas was caused by a southern migration of the polar vortex. Although polar vortices occur naturally, their frequency might be increasing due to climate change. Recent research has found an apparent relationship between warming of the Arctic and extreme winter weather in the US.
Extreme weather events are becoming more prevalent in Africa. In the last decade, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa have experienced intense droughts when other parts of the continent were plagued with floods. In 2019, the state of Africa’s climate was characterised by increased temperatures, raising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and extreme weather events including a destructive tropical cyclone in Mozambique, heatwaves in parts of South Africa and Mozambique as well as cold spells in Algeria and Tunisia. An increase in the magnitude and occurrence of extreme weather events will certainly affect electricity production and distribution in individual countries in Africa. The forecasted changes in temperature and rainfall in Africa are likely to affect: electricity demand for cooling and refrigeration; the timing of peak electricity demands and the level of such demands; water availability for hydropower generation and cooling of thermal as well as geothermal power generators; the availability of wind and solar and the performance or output of existing power stations. Floods, strong winds and heatwaves may also have impacts on energy infrastructure, including power stations, transmission lines, pipelines and oil and gas platforms.
Poorly equipped infrastructure
The Texas crisis equally revealed how its power infrastructure is fit for the state’s ordinary weather and climatic conditions but is ill-equipped for extreme cold weather events. The state’s infrastructure lacked insulation as well as heat tracing while its wind turbines were not fitted with de-icing equipment. Similar polar vortices swept through Texas in 1989 and 2011 and caused power shutdowns. On both occasions, the investigation reports recommended the shoring up of electric and natural-gas infrastructure for extended winter freezes.
A majority of the energy systems in Africa are designed and situated based on either historical or current data on weather and climatic conditions. Little consideration is given to climate change and extreme weather conditions when designing these systems or when forecasting energy production. Studies conducted on Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda have shown that none of these countries had power station siting and construction guidelines, technical equipment reinforcement rules or emergency power plans to react to extreme weather events and climate change.
Unregulated energy market
In 2002, the Texas State Legislature approved the deregulation of the state’s power industry and the opening up of power supply to competition. Over the years, the deregulated market has created competition between energy companies and incentivised them to sell electricity as cheaply as possible. The energy-only market, however, has no mechanism to motivate the companies to hold reserve capacity or plough money into maintenance and other weather and climate-proofing measures. This explains why Texas’s power infrastructure was ill-adapted for the storm.
Historically, the electric power industries of African countries operated as government-sanctioned monopolies. Currently, many African countries including Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe are at different stages of unbundling and restructuring their electricity markets from regulated monopolies to competitive markets so as to improve services, boost productivity, encourage innovation and reduce electricity costs. While unbundling and restricting of power sectors is desirable, a balance will need to be struck between retaining the benefits of a competitive market and allowing government involvement to safeguard public interests.
Texas has a grid that is largely disconnected from the rest the North America. This has made Texas an electricity island with strategic advantages such as freedom to set goals, foster investment and expand transmission without input from other state or federal agencies. The isolation nevertheless proved ill-judged at the height of the snowstorm when power demand overwhelmed supply, and Texas had no means of acquiring power from its neighbours or from the larger North American grid.
As of 2019, Africa had a 43 per cent electricity access rate. The majority of the African population without access to electricity are in the remote rural areas. African countries are addressing the electricity access deficit primarily through grid extensions and mini-grids, with mini-grids being favoured for remote rural areas since extending the grid to far-flung areas with low population density is not cost-effective. Most mini-grids rely on a single source of (usually renewable) energy and as such will be outage-prone during extreme weather/climatic conditions. They also often fail to keep up with growing demand. As the mini-grid sector increases in size over the next few years and climate change leads to more extreme weather, investments in interconnection between mini-grids and ultimately to national or regional grids will be necessary.
What happened in Texas should serve as a timely warning to African countries on improving the adaptive capacity of their energy sectors. To avoid a similar catastrophe that could set back current efforts to achieve complete access to electricity, African countries should integrate weather and climate adaptation measures in situating, designing, constructing, operating and maintaining their energy systems. They should prioritise evaluation of current and future weather and climate patterns and particularly their effect as well as threat to power supply, production, distribution and infrastructure. African countries should then use this information to design and climate proof their existing and future electricity systems so as to mitigate the energy security risks related to extreme weather and extraordinary climate events. Individual African countries should also develop robust power reliability and resilience tools and measures including designing energy markets that incentivise investments in infrastructure expansion and resilience.
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