It has been a while since I wrote anything here; but after sitting in someone else’s living room for four days while my apartment sat without power for 48 hours and water for 48 hours more in below freezing temperatures, I feel lucky. Lucky that I had somewhere to go when my home lost heat; and it was close enough to not expose myself to the dangers of icy roads for long.
The situation due to severe winter weather is critical in many states of the U.S., but it is a complete disaster in Texas.
In the Lower 48 states, there are three power grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and Texas. The Texas grid is called Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) which manages the electric grid of 90% of Texas and is outside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s jurisdiction. Because Texas electric grid is isolated, it is difficult to borrow energy as it has limited connection with other grids.
As unprecedented winter weather rolled in at the end of the second week of February, the Texas power grid was struggling to keep up with demand as people were trying to maintain their homes warm. Because of the cold and freezing rain many started losing power around Thursday February 11th. Many of these early blackouts were caused by frozen trees breaking and falling, bringing power lines down. But as power demand kept rising in unprecedented manner and ERCOT was unable to supply it to most buildings, they decided to implement “rolling blackouts” as the state entered an Energy Emergency Alert 3. What initially was supposed to be “rolling blackouts” ended up leaving people in the dark for days while experiencing dangerously cold temperatures.
Rolling blackouts were scheduled by ERCOT starting at midnight Monday 15th to protect the electric grid from cascading outages. These controlled blackouts were supposed to being spread across different neighborhoods and last short periods of time before rolling to the next; however, it did not happen that way. Some customers remained without power for days while others never lost it. Austin Energy, Austin’s city-owned utility, said that because areas in the same circuit as critical load —like hospitals, fire stations, and water plants— are exempt from rolling blackouts, they had nowhere to move the blackouts to. This happened as Texas was entering the coldest night on record. No power means no heat to keep buildings warm and for a lot of people means no way to cook food. Those lucky enough with gas stoves were told to reduce their use too as gas providers considered rolling gas outages.
Nearly 4.5 million Texan customers went without electricity on Tuesday. That morning, Dallas-Fort Worth area notched a record low of 2°F (-17°C) making it the coldest day in North Texas in 72 years. Millions without power or heat in below freezing temperatures.
For people saying that those temperatures happen all the time up North, let me tell you that Texas is not built for that type of weather. Texas buildings are built to deal with over 100°F (38°C) heat during summer, not an Arctic freeze. Houses are not insulated the same way as in the North; we have no snowplows or salt trucks, and a lot of Texans do not have winter clothes. The temperatures we got this past week are nothing close to normal winter temperatures in the state. Because this is a rare weather event, power plants are not built for those temperatures either; even thought, federal energy officials had warned ERCOT to adequately weatherize facilities against cold weather after a similar (but much shorter) situation occurred back in 2011.
ERCOT was ill-prepared for the skyrocketing demand that came with the cold, 69,150 MW on Sunday night (Feb. 14th). At the peak of the blackouts, 45,000 MW of capacity were offline. The outages (power offline) represented twice as much as what ERCOT had planned in their worst-case scenario. They had a plan, but it was way off.
So, what caused the power plants to fail? The freezing temperatures.
Many blamed renewables, especially frozen wind turbines; but wind and solar represent only about 11% of Texas’ winter power generation and they are not baseload —especially on tough conditions. Texans get their power mostly from fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. Natural gas represents two-thirds of the supply for winter months; and the collapse across the Texas natural gas system is the main cause of the outages.
To be fair, all systems failed when they were needed the most, natural gas plants, solar, wind, coal, even some nuclear. But two-fifths of the generating capacity from thermal plants (natural gas, coal, nuclear) have been offline since last Sunday when they were supposed to supply the bulk of power needed.
Problems that were identified include gas wells and lines that froze, pumps to lift gas were electrical and lost power, at least one nuclear reactor could not operate safely as water froze, pipelines were not buried deep enough to insulate them from the cold, the blades on some wind turbines froze. All these problems could have been avoided if the infrastructure would have been weatherized for extreme cold. But that is costly.
We have been warned for decades that climate change would make extreme weather events more common. We are already living it; so, it is time for ERCOT to properly weatherize their infrastructure to prevent or mitigate this happening again. If not, lives are lost. Over 38 people have died across the U.S. in the last week due to the extreme weather and lack of power, some on roads, some of hypothermia, some of carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to get warm.
The aftermath of the outages is ongoing. Many are dealing with damage in their buildings due to burst water pipes, food and water shortages, lost homes, damaged cars, leaking roofs, and ridiculously high electric bills. Some still do not have power or water a week later.
We have to take this and learn from it to prepare for the future, make appropriate changes to the systems that failed us, and plan for the unexpected.