06-03-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recent storm weather in Texas has brought with it some of the coldest temperatures in decades. Why is power out in portions of the US state, how has it affected the semiconductor industry, and what does this teach about energy diversification?
Texas is a state in the US known for its hot summers, mild winters, and expansive arid land. However, a recent snowstorm has hit the state with temperatures well below the average. The result of this storm has been multiple car crashes, fatalities, and power outages across the state.
When a snowstorm hits, power outages are typically expected due to how snow impacts electrical infrastructure. For example, large trees that hold too much snow can crack under the weight and bring down electrical lines. Electrical installations can also suffer damage due to wind and snow which can see substations shut down, cutting off power to many homes.
However, the recent storm in Texas is somewhat different. Texas is a state that rarely experiences such weather. It is an understatement to say that Texas was unprepared for the storm. But not only were power lines damaged from falling trees, but even the energy sources also froze up and were unable to work.
Texas receives power from multiple sources including gas, nuclear, wind, and solar, but gas is the majority contributor of power. During the storm, the temperature dropped so much that the pipelines providing gas to power stations froze up, and thus many gas power plants ceased to operate.
Simultaneously, unusually moist air found its way into many wind turbines, and the resulting cold weather afterwards caused up to 87% of wind turbines to freeze. Coupled with solar panels being covered in inches of snow, the resulting inhibition of wind and solar resulted in many thousands being left without energy.
Texas is not only a home for large hats, rodeo, and hot weather; it is a major player in the semiconductor industry. As a result of the power outage, multiple semiconductor foundries in Austin had to close down production.
Companies affected include NXP who had to close down two sites, while Samsung Electronics had to close down one site during the power outage. For a typical factory, closing down an industrial process will often lead to a waste batch of products that can be generally ignored. However, semiconductor production processes cannot be halted, and semiconductor devices can spend months in a production line.
This means that the closed foundries could see a major impact on their ability to deliver semiconductor devices in the coming months. Furthermore, the world is already short on automotive ICs, and NXP is a major player in the automotive industry. The last thing that the automotive industry needs right now is a delay in automotive parts, and this is exactly what the power outage in Texas has just caused.
It is unfair to put the blame on energy providers in Texas for the wide-spread power outages. Texas is a state that does not typically experience such cold weather combined with deep snow. Blaming engineers in Texas for not preparing for such weather is equivalent to blaming engineers in Dubai when a flash flood occurs (a city which has virtually no rain, ever).
However, as society increases its dependency on power and electronics, ensuring its reliability is important. If power generation methods including wind, solar, and gas can all easily be affected by a single snowstorm, serious questions are brought into their ability to provide electricity reliably for a developing society.
Granted, it is unusual for natural gas to fail as it did in Texas, but considering that the vast majority of renewable energy ceased to operate demonstrates how turning entirely to renewable energies is not currently possible.
Germany has had a similar issue in that it had turned mostly to solar and wind energy, only to find that electricity costs went through the roof. The result of increasing energy costs and the declining of nuclear energy saw Germany erect coal power stations to become a major contributor to CO2 emissions.
As alternative energy sources are explored, researchers should also consider how to make solar and wind more resistant to dramatic weather changes. It is in these changes that power is often needed the most.