How Texas’ Entire Power Grid Crumbled Under 3 Inches of Snow

Image: Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

How was one of the largest power grids in the country, in the nation’s leading power-producing state, brought to its knees this week? Below zero temperatures literally froze mechanisms of energy generation and skyrocketing power demand leading to a power supply shortage that forced 4.2 million Texans to survive the record cold without power.

Officials are working around the clock to get the lights (and heat) back on, but hours-long rolling blackouts are leaving millions vulnerable to the cold, and it may cost some their lives.

 

Why This Matters: As the weather becomes more erratic due to climate change, our infrastructure is coming under increased risk. In some states, back-to-back hurricanes have left little time to repair important infrastructure like powerlines. Research shows that warming arctic temperatures could carry more cold air south each winter, which means even as summers get hotter, winters may bring colder extremes. In Southeastern states, a century of infrastructure built to withstand summer heat and humidity may have to be retrofitted and replaced to deal with extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum. The lack of this preparation helped create the dire situation in Texas. 

Additionally, the power losses have delayed vaccine shipments and denied access to crucial healthcare resources for the elderly and COVID-19 victims. While most hospitals have been given priority on the power grid, ambulances and other emergency personnel are unable to navigate the icy roads.

How Did We Get Here?

For years, the governments of states like Texas have been reluctant to invest in winter weather infrastructure because storms like this one only happen once a decade or so.

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, said that the state’s lack of regulation and funding for maintenance has also led to vulnerability in the power system.

For more than a decade, generators have not been able to charge what it costs them to produce electricity,” he said. “If you don’t make a return on your money, how can you keep it up? It’s like not taking care of your car. If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work.”

With the current level of funding, the power grid was only prepared for a standard Texas winter, but not for extremes like residents saw this week.

Additionally, Texas operates its own power grid which provides electricity to the majority of the state.  As Vox explained, managed by the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the grid provides 90 percent of the state’s electricity and serves 26 million customers. 

  • It draws on a diverse range of power sources in a competitive market. The largest source of electricity in Texas is natural gas, followed by wind and solar, coal, then nuclear. The state is the largest oil, natural gas, and wind energy producer in the US. 
  • The sudden cold snap this weekend put the state’s ample resources to the test, with demand reaching a record high peak for the winter, more than 69,000 megawatts. That’s 3,200 MW higher than the previous record set in 2018.

This latest winter storm was so cold that ERCOT modeling was not able to predict the severity of the stress energy generation and distribution sources would incur. And while many (including Texas Governor Greg Abbott in a much-criticized FOX News appearance) pointed fingers at renewable energy sources for creating this lack of reliability, frozen wind turbines were a relatively small source of the rolling blackouts. 

Go Deeper: Learn more about why Texas has its own power grid

Hot and Cold: Not only have these outages been disastrous, but they also seem to be disproportionately impacting communities of color.

  • Rolling blackouts in Austin caused outrage on Twitter when users pointed out that the outages rather conveniently wrapped around richer, whiter neighborhoods, primarily leaving Black and Latino residents without power and heat.
  • On Tuesday afternoon, “Highland Park,” an affluent enclave nestled in the center of Dallas, was trending on Twitter after residents noticed that the neighborhood had virtually no outages while surrounding areas went without heat for hours.
  • Other affluent Dallas neighborhoods as well as the downtown commercial district also enjoyed heat and power while predominantly Black neighborhoods nearby shivered.

What Now?

There is a clear need for preparedness and equity for Texas’ power grid. The state is not only experiencing record low temperatures but cities along the Gulf, including Houston, have experienced flooding in recent years that used to happen only once per century. Almost always communities of color and poor communities suffer most from the consequences of underprepared infrastructure. Doug Lewin, an energy and climate consultant said, “as soon as we get on the other side of this thing, we really need to, as a state, get serious about planning ahead for climate change.”

These problems aren’t unique to Texas. As the nation transitions its energy infrastructure towards renewable resources, the Biden administration must ensure that it can endure extreme weather, which, even with climate action, will still be a major threat for the foreseeable future.  

 

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