Understanding Cascading Impacts: A Situational Update and Case Study of Recent Infrastructure Failures in Texas
There are currently 187,151 power outages of general utilities across Texas caused by Winter Storm Uri, according to PowerOutage.US. The United States (U.S.) Department of Energy (DOE) Extreme Cold and Winter Weather Update reported the number of outages has slowly declined over the week, restoring power to many of the 4 million customers without power on Tuesday, February 16.
The winter storm and associated disruptions to Texas’ power grid have also majorly impacted the state’s water infrastructure. A spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spoke with The New York Times, revealing over 800 public water systems providing service to 162 of the state’s 254 counties have been disrupted. Currently, this disruption impacts 13.1 million people throughout the state.
The ongoing power outages have impacted almost every aspect of life in Texas. The Texas Tribune reported on universities attempting to provide students with food and shelter while facing staffing shortages and diminished food supplies. Additionally, incarcerated individuals at prisons and jails have been kept in unheated cells. Many Texans have reported indoor temperatures of 32 degrees and lower which, according to The Dallas Morning News, has created a greater risk of burst or frozen pipes. According to data compiled by The Washington Post, there have been nearly 50 fatalities across the country attributable to these recent winter storms, with 30 recorded deaths stemming directly from the ongoing situation in Texas.
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
In Texas, the power outages are occurring because power producers are not able to generate enough electricity to meet current demand. To maintain stability within the power grid, operators need to balance power supply (generation) and demand (load). This requires that power suppliers continue to provide energy despite weather-driven disruptions that may be affecting their systems. In extremely cold temperatures, the demand for electricity tends to spike due to requirements for heating, making continuity of operations increasingly challenging. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the power companies that serve Texas are aware of this phenomenon, and prepare for it in their annual forecasts. However, their models base projections on recent weather history, and Winter Storm Uri significantly exceeded those projections. The impacts of climate change on winter storms and other extreme weather may force ERCOT and other power companies to reassess their models and assumptions.
In addition to underestimating the demand for power this winter, the freezing temperatures also hindered and disrupted the ability of many generators to produce power. The cold weather led to frozen gas pipelines, coal piles, wind turbines, and more, limiting access to resources critical for power generation. As a result of this reduced capacity for generation, Texas’ power companies had to shed load – meaning, stop providing power to customers – to maintain the balance between generation and load. Failure to maintain that balance could result in major grid instabilities, which could cause even more widespread outages and damage to grid infrastructure.
Notwithstanding the harsh winter weather, Texas faces a unique challenge when dealing with potential power outages. The majority of Texas gets power from one self-contained grid known as an “interconnection,” overseen by ERCOT. Meanwhile, the rest of the U.S. is split between the eastern and western interconnections that extend up into Canada. When a state within one of the large interconnections is facing power generation shortages, they can import power from neighboring states. But Texas is all alone in that regard. Texas can import some power through high-voltage ties to surrounding interconnections, but not enough to make up for the current shortfalls. Due to their relatively isolated grid, Texas limited their own ability to rely on neighboring states during high impact, low frequency events that cause severe power outages.
DOE Situation Report: Source
As challenging as these power outages may be for Texans, they are also contributing to outages of other lifeline services due to the interdependencies between them. As a result, actions taken to bolster resilience in one sector can be minimized by a lack of readiness by other sectors and stakeholders to ensure that they can sustain operations and perform essential functions despite shocks and disruptions to their systems. Moreover, because these interdependencies are bi-directional between stakeholders across the value chain, the impacts on lifeline services can be mutually reinforcing: that is, as power outages cause lifeline systems to fail, those failures may contribute to challenges for producing power.
The water sector is a prime example of this phenomenon. In addition to frozen pipes, Texans are facing water shortages and water quality issues due to the lack of electricity. The pumps that pressurize water systems, water and wastewater treatment facilities, and other critical system components require electricity to function. However, water is also critical for cooling the thermoelectric power plants (e.g., gas-fired, coal-fired, or nuclear plants) that supply the majority of power in Texas – a lack of water could continue to hinder their ability to produce power.
Natural gas providers face similar challenges. In the natural gas sector, extreme cold temperatures have resulted in well freeze-offs and natural gas processing plant outages in producing areas across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, according to the U.S. DOE. The producing areas generally account for about 20 percent to 25 percent of total U.S. gas production. Petroleum refineries have also experienced shutdowns, with the worst impacted areas along the Texas Gulf Coast Region, accounting for roughly 20 percent of total U.S. refinery capacity.
While freezing along gas pipelines has been partially caused by gas shortages, gas infrastructure is also increasingly reliant on power to operate. In particular, key gas pipeline system components – including pipeline compressors and industrial control systems – that transport gas to power generators and other users require electricity. In Texas, power outages affecting compressors have contributed to shortfalls in power generation.
The State of Texas is currently under a Boil Water Advisory which can impact how you perform essential daily functions at home. In accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, Texas DSHS provides tips and tricks for staying safe under the Boil Water Notice. This includes boiling all tap water, including water that is filtered, and only drinking water that is bottled, boiled, or disinfected.
For safety and water/energy conservation, current water boil notices require you to do many essential and household activities differently. Please take the steps in the graphic below.
— Texas DSHS (@TexasDSHS) February 18, 2021
Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS): Source
Additionally, the CDC provides guidance on safe eating after power outages. To reduce your potential for contracting a foodborne illness, never taste the food to determine if it is safe to eat. The CDC recommends trusting your sense of smell and “when in doubt, throw it out.” Generally, perishable foods should be thrown out after four hours without a cold source.
Telecommunications systems are also suffering due to the ongoing power outages. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all noted that power outages were affecting their service to customers. The Federal Communications Commission FCC also reported communications outages for over 300,000 wired and wireless users, as some service providers are without power and relying on backup generators. In some cases, those generators are running out of fuel, and the winter storm conditions have made it difficult to deliver more. Fortunately, however, there have not been reports of more widespread impacts to priority customers like first responders and infrastructure service providers. Communications systems play a critical “enabling” role for all other lifeline sectors, and more severe outages could certainly have impacted grid operations, exacerbating the impact of the power outages.
As the winter storm extends, these issues could begin to compound. Many essential facilities – lifeline service providers, healthcare facilities, grocery stores and food distribution centers, etc. – that cannot operate without power have backup generators for these exact scenarios. Those generators are in place and operating, but some have begun to run out of fuel and may be facing technical issues that require maintenance if they continue to run for prolonged periods of time.
THE PATH FORWARD
President Biden has authorized an emergency declaration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is sending extra generators and fuel for them. However, those facilities face two major challenges: 1) there is greater demand for generators and fuel than there are resources available; and 2) the road conditions make distribution a logistics nightmare. Both of these challenges will necessitate prioritization for who gets the resources available.
Lifeline infrastructure systems are likely to only grow more interconnected and interdependent. The risks of cascading failures across sectors are likely to grow as a result. However, infrastructure owners and operators, their government partners, and a range of other stakeholders can make these systems more resilient against potential cascading failures, too. An effective response to incidents more severe than Winter Storm Uri will require:
- An understanding of complex interdependencies. Understanding where and how lifeline systems interact is crucial to assessing impacts and the potential for cascading failures when disaster strikes. Identifying potential single points of failure can be particularly helpful for establishing response priorities in the immediate aftermath of an incident.
- Ability for dynamic prioritization. Understanding priorities in a steady state is important, but that prioritization does not take into account the real-life impacts when an event occurs. Once a severe disruption takes place, and as sustainment and restoration efforts are underway, response personnel need to be able to identify the next highest priorities on a cross-sector basis to allocate scarce personnel and resources.
- Strong relationships, effective operational coordination between partners, and integrated external communications. No one organization or agency is going to be able to respond to a disaster on its own. Industry, government, and other disaster response stakeholders need to share information, coordinate response operations, and work together to limit disruptions to public health and safety, the economy, and national security. This includes having a coordinated public messaging strategy to inform those impacted on the current situation and any protective actions they should take.
- An emphasis on continuity of operations in crisis response. An emphasis on ensuring the continued performance of essential functions will be key to stabilizing the incident and limiting the disruption’s impacts on the public. Especially for lifeline infrastructure providers, an immediate focus on sustaining and restoring service will contribute to maximizing the number of lives saved in a disaster.
HAGERTY CAN HELP
For organizations looking to ready themselves for the interconnected, dynamic, and complex challenges faced in these types of cascading scenarios, they must prepare to be innovative and adaptable in response to disruptions to their facilities, personnel, and resources. Now more than ever, it is critical for all organizations to #ReachforResilience and build that approach into every facet of their operations – from long-lead investment decisions, to day-to-day operations, and disaster planning and mitigation.
Rob Denaburg is a Senior Managing Associate in Hagerty’s Preparedness Division. Rob serves as a lead in Hagerty’s Critical Infrastructure Preparedness work, with a focus on energy. Rob has worked with public and private sector clients to minimize the societal, economic, and national security impacts of infrastructure outages and build resilience against severe natural and manmade hazards.
Ashley Wargo is a Senior Managing Associate in the Preparedness Division out of Hagerty’s Austin, TX office. Ashley serves as the firm’s lead for energy preparedness, working with clients at local, state, and national levels to enhance preparedness efforts through planning, training, exercise, and operations analysis. She works with clients to gather actionable information that can be used to formulate and prioritize improvement actions to enhance response efficiency and service delivery to municipalities and customers.
Patrick Van Horne is a Senior Managing Associate in Hagerty’s Preparedness Division and serves as the firm’s continuity lead. Patrick is an experienced emergency manager leading disaster planning, training and exercise projects, and a co-author of the book, Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life.