A bitter cold snap brought Texas to a standstill this week, severely disrupting the power grid and leaving millions in the dark and without heat.
At least 36 people have reportedly died due to the extreme winter weather across the central and southern U.S. so far; many died from carbon monoxide poisoning after improperly using cars and generators to stay warm.
A good portion of blame can rightly be assigned to Texas’ electricity grid. Unlike the rest of the continental U.S., Texas intentionally operates on its own, mostly isolated network.
Other compounding factors contributed as well, which together aligned to simultaneously increase power demand and decrease power supply, with deadly consequences.
Here’s a look at what went wrong.
Wait, Texas has its own power grid?
Yes. While most of North America taps into either the Eastern Interconnection or the Western Interconnection for its power, the majority of Texas is serviced by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.
ERCOT’s service area doesn’t encompass all of Texas. El Paso, part of East Texas, and a portion of the upper Panhandle belong to other grids. Notably, those areas ― and other states in the central and southern U.S. ― didn’t have the type of cascading failures Texans experienced this week.
Though thousands in other states also lost power at the height of the crisis, Texas’ outages dwarfed the rest of the country, according to data tracked by PowerOutage.us.
The historical origins of ERCOT can be traced back to the nationwide manufacturing boom brought on by World War II and the corresponding need for increased power production.
At the time, there was no state oversight of Texas’ investor-owned utilities. Wanting to keep it that way, they assiduously avoided interstate power sales, even as the federal government encouraged systems to tie into one another as a matter of national defense.
(For a much more thorough primer on ERCOT’s history, see this explainer from Professor Julie Cohn, who studies energy, technology and the environment at Rice University and the University of Houston.)
Today, Texas politicians proudly tout the state’s power grid as being free from federal oversight. On Wednesday, former Texas governor and former national Energy Secretary Rick Perry encouraged the state’s residents to keep enduring blackouts and life-threatening cold so the grid can continue to operate independently.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry said. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”
Is that why Texas is in this mess?
Partially. If you’ve intentionally isolated your grid, by definition it’s going to harder to bring in more power in periods of need.
In the past, that hasn’t been an issue. Texas’ peak periods of demand typically happen in the summer, and ERCOT has historically been able to meet that demand.
But when demand far outstrips supply, as it did this week, sometimes you need to call in outside help. The state was forced to import power from Mexico in February 2011 when a similar cold snap hit and prompted rolling blackouts. That aid was unavailable during the crisis this week, however, because Texas’ natural gas shortage forced Mexico, which imports natural gas from across the border, to curtail its own energy production.
“One state over might be doing just fine where Texas could be struggling because there’s no way to move power between those two states,” Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Washington Post.
What failed, exactly?
Damn near everything. Simply put, supply failed to keep up with demand. At the same time millions of Texans were cranking up their thermostats, leading to a spike in demand, power plants and pipelines were freezing over, decreasing supply.
ERCOT set a peak winter demand record of 69,150 megawatts on Sunday evening, only to lose 30,000 megawatts in supply soon after, as the same extreme weather that forced Texans to turn up the heat knocked generating units offline.
As demand soared and supply withered, ERCOT had to take drastic action. ERCOT President Bill Magness said Thursday that the grid had been “seconds and minutes” away from a cascading, catastrophic failure that would have left Texans without power for months.
“It needed to be addressed immediately,” Magness said. So ERCOT turned to rolling blackouts.
On the energy production side, numerous failures stemming from cold weather all stacked on top of one another, wreaking havoc downstream.
It was so cold that oil and gas wells themselves stopped producing.
“Gathering lines freeze, and the wells get so cold that they can’t produce,” Parker Fawcett, a natural gas analyst for S&P Global Platts, told The Texas Tribune. “And pumps use electricity, so they’re not even able to lift that gas and liquid, because there’s no power to produce.”
Elsewhere in the state, ice blocked natural gas pipelines; freezing rain iced over wind turbines; a nuclear reactor shut down after water pumps stopped working; and frozen water supplies knocked coal plants offline.
All the infrastructure that failed can be winterized, and in cold-weather regions, it is. But since Texas has never seen temperatures this cold, they simply weren’t built for it.
Where does Texas get most of its energy? (I heard wind power was at fault?)
Texas produces more energy than any other state, and has the nation’s highest share of wind production.
During the winter, natural gas and coal together account for 82% of the state’s power production. Wind contributes an additional 10%; nuclear, 6%; and other sources like solar and hydroelectric make up the remainder.
Ironically, wind energy represented one bright spot for grid operators, as the resource — which tends to ebb in the winter months — actually surpassed daily production forecasts over the past weekend.
Frozen wind turbines accounted for less than 13% of the total outages this week, Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told Bloomberg.
Natural gas outages were primarily to blame for the shutdown, The Texas Tribune concluded. At the peak of the crisis, nearly half of the state’s natural gas production was knocked offline.
Since natural gas is used both in the production of electricity and to directly heat some homes, gas shortages were especially damaging. Utilities prioritize the use of natural gas for heat over generating power, leading to competing interests for an already scarce resource.
“The major difference between what happens in the summer and what’s happening now is competition for natural gas. If too many people are trying to consume natural gas it can depressurize the lines and if that pressure drops too low, they’re no longer able to operate,” Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at the University of Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman. “The whole system isn’t really set up to deliver what we’re demanding of it.”
Shouldn’t Texas have seen this coming?
Probably. This has happened before, but not to this extent.
After the 2011 snafu, federal regulators produced a 357-page report with dozens of recommendations for how Texas and the Southwest region as a whole could avoid another cold-weather failure.
(It cited six other severe cold weather events stretching back to the early 1980s, though the severity of those cold stretches were nowhere near the current situation.)
Among other things, the report recommended that utilities implement a number of winterization procedures. Notably, the report cautioned that weather forecasts alone were insufficient predictors, and that operators should instead prepare for “unusually severe events.”
But all that is expensive, and Texas’ power supply leans heavily on private companies that are unlikely to spend boatloads of money winterizing their infrastructure voluntarily.
“Are you going to winterize if you don’t get your money back?” Alan Scheller-Wolf, a professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business told Bloomberg. “The Texas industry values less regulatory mandates and they value having their separate detached power grid, so I would find it unlikely that they are going to hit their companies with a raft of regulation.”
(A similar report, produced after a similar winter grid failure in 1989, was also largely ignored.)
How do we keep this from happening again?
That’s a question numerous panels will undoubtedly be commissioned to study.
Ultimately the answer depends on having the political will to confront an uncomfortable cost-benefit analysis.
What costs more: Forcing the entire state of Texas to endure potentially life-threatening conditions at unpredictable intervals, or spending large amounts of money winterizing essential power components? And is having an independent power grid so you don’t have to conform to federal standards really that beneficial?
Beyond that, other steps we can take to better protect our power supply as a nation include: interconnecting the grid so sun in Nevada can heat homes in Chicago; strengthening critical infrastructure to better withstand extreme weather; and better insulating houses to use energy more efficiently overall.
A complete failure to plan for extreme weather scenarios caused this kind of cascading disaster, which risks becoming more common as climate chaos increases pressure on human systems.
We can’t say definitively if this storm was an anomalous event or if it’s rooted in climate change. But severe weather events like this one will be more commonplace in the future absent stronger action.
Alexander Kaufman contributed reporting.