Texas Power Grid

Week 30: February 22, 2020

This past week, national attention has shifted to the state of Texas, which has been suffering from a deadly mismanagement of winter storms. The crisis began on February 10th, and has continued throughout the month. While the extremely cold temperatures experienced this month are uncommon in Texas, what has been more shocking is the dismal government response and the underlying concerns that have allowed the situation to escalate.

Power outages, burst pipes, and water filtration plants shutting down have resulted in a dangerous and exceedingly dire situation for Texans. So far, 58 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning (from running car engines or generators inside), house fires, hypothermia, and drowning. Burst pipes have resulted in flooding and many families don’t have running water. Additionally, because water filtration plants have had to close temporarily, families are being instructed to boil their drinking water. Finally, as a result of unsafe road conditions and other storm related complications, grocery stores are low on food supplies and many people are having difficulty finding basic necessities.

In a letter to the governor of Texas, people were demanding accountability. “In light of energy suppliers’ failure to adequately respond to extreme weather conditions last week, which caused rolling blackouts and widespread power outages all over central and south Texas, we must demand an explanation.” Here is the thing though -- this letter was written 10 years ago. The crisis unfolding in Texas right now is not the first of its kind; similar winter storms hit Texas in 1989 and 2011, and it seems as though the state was equally unprepared in all cases.

So why was Texas so unprepared? The burden falls mostly on the deregulated nature of the state’s energy grid. The U.S. has three grids, the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and Texas. In order to avoid federal regulations, Texas has an isolated power grid which is primarily controlled by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Although we have the technology to winterize utility related infrastructure (such as natural gas power plants, wind turbines, and coal plants), Texas left the decision up to the power companies on whether they wanted to undertake the costly upgrade. Predictably, most companies did not. When temperatures dropped, many plants were unable to continue running – wind turbines iced over, gas wells froze, and instrumentation became too cold to continue operating safely.

Additionally, the dwindling power supply was exacerbated by the increased demand for electricity as people tried to keep warm. The isolated power grid made it so they were unable to siphon off power from neighboring states in order to alleviate the demand.

above: Texas' conditions worsen, leaving millions without heat/power as temperatures plunge

In order to avoid a catastrophic statewide blackout which would leave 29 million Texans without power, ERCOT made the decision to implement “rolling blackouts” to reduce energy demands. These controlled blackouts are supposed to cycle through different neighborhoods so that no one area is left without power for too long. Unfortunately, for seemingly unclear reasons, those who lost power have not gotten it back. One hypothesis is that companies are afraid that the process required to rotate the blackouts would risk an even bigger failure.

Predictably, these power outages are disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities in east Texas while downtown commercial buildings continue to light up the sky. While this is partially because of the critical infrastructure present in the city including hospitals, COVID-19 response centers and government buildings, the inequality is stark. Black and Latinx people, who are already twice as likely as white people to live under the poverty line in Texas, have been hit particularly hard by the storm and subsequent blackouts. People living in poverty tend to have homes with insufficient insulation, and some have no shelter at all.

Furthermore, the freezing temperatures and unsafe road conditions made it difficult for Texas residents to get vaccinated. Many shipments have been delayed and vaccination centers have temporarily shut down. As the government tries to get the situation under control, it is falling behind in vaccine distribution.

Many government officials, including the Governor, have attempted to blame Texas’ renewable energy infrastructure for the power failures. While the state is leading the U.S. in wind and solar energy production, it only gets 20% of its energy from renewable sources. Additionally, while windmills froze, traditional sources of power were also rendered ineffective by the freezing temperatures. Some conservatives have already begun to use the blackouts as a means to roll back progress towards green energy, yet most evidence supports the conclusion that renewable power is not to blame.

So, what can Texas learn from this disaster? How can this be prevented from happening again? It is clear that sufficient measures were not taken after the last time this happened, and the escalating consequences of climate change will likely result in similar storms occurring with more frequency and severity in the future in the future. An obvious solution is mandating the winterization of generators so that they can continue to produce electricity in similar conditions. Windmills and power plants have the capacity to work consistently at colder temperatures, but they require an investment. Perhaps it is time to connect Texas to the rest of the country and provide it with the resiliency needed to face future crises.

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