Julie Cohn had an especially informed perspective on the power outages in Texas caused this February by winter storm Uri. A Houston resident, Cohn is the author of “The Grid: Biography of an American Technology” and a preeminent scholar of the history of the U.S. electricity grid affiliated with both the University of Houston and Rice University.
In February, extreme cold caused a spike in electricity demand just as generating equipment in Texas, much of which isn’t winterized, started to freeze up, Cohn said on this week’s Drinks With The Deal podcast. Faced with the prospect of systemwide failure, operators of Texas’s grid opted for rolling blackouts that turned into longer outages. Though particularly prolonged, the power failure was not unusual. Cohn estimated there have been 70 to 75 major power outages in the U.S., most of them caused by weather, since the famous 1965 outage in the Northeast that inspired a major overhaul of a system that dates to the early 20th century.
“Technologies for controlling the grid have evolved so that there are smaller and smaller margins for error, because the ability to collect and manage data has increased so much,” said Cohn, whose father, an electrical engineer, took his family on tours of power plant control rooms when she was a child. “That increases the efficiency of our use of electricity, but when something goes wrong, there is less margin for error.”
Here’s the podcast: