February 19, 2021: Some 700 people died, hundreds of thousands of homes were still without power, half of the state was under a boil water order, racialized communities were bearing the brunt, and the electricity system operator admitted it had only narrowly averted months-long blackouts as Texas began taking stock of a rolling disaster brought on by climate-driven severe weather and ideologically-driven grid deregulation.
The state’s power grid “was ‘seconds and minutes’ away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months,” the Texas Tribune reported last night, citing officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). “The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what were intended to be rolling blackouts—but lasted days for millions of Texans—occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.”
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As multiple generating facilities—mostly gas plants, but also wind, coal, and nuclear installations—“tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly,” the Tribune explained. “At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.”
That meant “it needed to be addressed immediately,” said ERCOT President Bill Magness. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”
If grid operators hadn’t moved swiftly, Magness added, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”
That technical drama, presumably played out in a control room at ERCOT headquarters, produced no end of political drama and human tragedy across the state.
The mayor of Colorado City, TX resigned in disgrace after asserting that “only the strong will survive” and instructing his constituents to “get off your ass and take care of your own family”, rather than expecting a government assist in the face of epic power and water outages. Former governor Rick Perry said Texans “would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” while potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke called Texas a “failed state”. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) admitted to “a mistake” after scooting off to Cancún with his daughters while his constituents struggled with the historic storm. And cartoonist Steve Breen portrayed the latest version of Texas Hold ‘Em as a couple and their two children in winter gear and a blanket, trying to get warm.
“So much of this was avoidable,” O’Rourke told MSNBC Tuesday. “Going back to the deregulation of our electric grid here in Texas, which has actually created an incentive to not weatherize or protect against these events.”
While Gov. Greg Abbott declared the outages “unacceptable,” noting that the Electric Reliability Council had been “anything but reliable,” O’Rourke blamed Republicans in state government for focusing on culture war issues instead of paying attention to essential infrastructure.
“The energy capital of North America cannot provide enough energy to warm and power people’s homes,” he said. “We are nearing a failed state in Texas. And it has nothing to do with god or natural disasters. It has everything to do with those in positions of public trust who have failed us.”
A Continuing, Multi-State Emergency
By Thursday, the Washington Post said power had been restored to nearly two million homes in 24 hours, but the deep freeze was still playing havoc with the state’s infrastructure.
“The deadly Arctic outbreak associated with two major winter storms has maintained its grip on much of the Lower 48 states,” the Post wrote. “In Mississippi, more than 110,000 households are still without electricity, while another nearly 90,000 are powerless in Louisiana,” while about 13 million people in Texas and a million in Louisiana lacked access to safe, clean drinking water.
“President Biden has approved emergency declarations for Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, sending federal equipment, supplies and other resources to the affected states,” the Post added. “Since Sunday—when temperatures plunged sharply—there have been at least 47 deaths linked to the storm.”
Earlier in the week, “in Austin, Houston, and other cities, residents were asked to stop letting water drip from pipes, a practice to prevent freezing, because of a major drop in water pressure,” The Associated Press reported. “Houston residents also were told to boil their water—if they had power—because the pressure drop was allowing bacteria to seep into the pipes.”
In Lake Charles, Louisiana, AP said water reserves were still low Wednesday after power was restored, prompting local hospitals to consider transferring patients. “Authorities said a fire that killed three young children and their grandmother in the Houston area likely was caused by the fireplace they were using to keep warm,” the news agency wrote. At least 13 children were treated and one adult died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Fort Worth.
Nearly 150,000 households were without power in Oregon, where AP said four people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, while the governor of Oklahoma and utilities in Arkansas urged citizens to conserve electricity amid actual or threatened rolling power outages. Louisiana utility Entergy and rural power co-ops in North Dakota faced outages, and Federal Express and General Motors were among the companies that had to shut down operations in some parts of the country due to power outages and gas shortages. The utility in Colorado Springs set a record for electricity consumption, and a gas company in Peoria, Illinois begged customers to use less if they hoped to keep their February bills to a five-fold increase, rather than going higher still.
In one wholesale market, gas was trading for US$999 per million BTUs, a 24,000% increase over the previous week’s price. The second-biggest shale driller in West Texas’ Permian Basin declared it couldn’t meet its deliveries, four refinery operators shut down or scaled back operations, and Bloomberg Green said it could take weeks to get fossil operations back to full production, an article titled: How Do You Restart an Oil Well That’s Frozen Solid? [Memo to Texas politicians: Betcha it’s easier to de-ice a wind turbine!—Ed.]
Communities of Colour ‘Keep Getting Dunked On’
Climate Nexus and the New York Times both pointed to baked-in discrimination that was only aggravated by the grid failure.
“The widespread power outages across Texas are highlighting and worsening underlying societal and racial inequities,” Climate Nexus wrote. “The state’s 34-gigawatt shortfall has forced widespread blackouts, but whiter, more affluent communities have gotten off relatively easily, while socio-economically disadvantaged communities, and especially communities of colour, have been left without power. If history is a guide, they will also be the last to be reconnected, while unhoused people are especially vulnerable.”
“Every year we are caught in this scenario, through no fault of our own,” Maya Ford, a resident of Houston’s Third Ward, told the Houston Chronicle. “Communities of colour are doing everything right. But we keep getting dunked on—every single time.”
Experts also worry “that rising energy prices amid surging demand will leave many families in the lurch, unable to pay their utility bills next month and triggering utility cut-offs at a time when they are at their most vulnerable,” the Times added. “In Texas’ deregulated electricity market, prices can fluctuate with demand, leading to a potential jump in electric bills for poorer households that already spend a disproportionate amount of income on utilities.”
“Whether it’s flooding from severe weather events like hurricanes or it’s something like this severe cold, the history of our response to disasters is that these communities are hit first and have to suffer the longest,” said Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard, who specializes in wealth and racial disparities related to the environment.
“These are communities that have already been hit hardest with COVID,” he told the Times. “They’re the households working two minimum wage jobs, the essential workers who don’t get paid if they don’t go to work.”
The Texas Tribune traced the impact on residents who received no advance warning of the blackouts, and were then told the power outages would last just an hour or so at a time.
Instead, “a grandmother slept in her car. Parents who ran out of firewood burned belongings to keep their children warm. A Richardson resident watched the battery level of her partner’s oxygen machine drain away and desperately sought help to have it recharged.” And across the state, “Texas residents said the storm—and ensuing partial collapse of the state’s power system—sapped what mental reserves they had left after 11 months of a global health crisis that has cost thousands of jobs and claimed more than 40,000 lives in the state.”
“To go through all of that and then also to have stuff like this happen, it’s like, ‘One more historic event, and I’m going to develop PTSD,’” said Brianna Blake, who moved to Texas from Ohio with her husband and two children after her husband was laid off due to the pandemic, then their home was destroyed by a tornado. “I cannot do this.”
‘No Reason to Leave Neighbourhoods Freezing to Death’
“Making matters worse, expectations that the outages would be a shared sacrifice by the state’s 30 million residents quickly gave way to a cold reality, as pockets in some of America’s largest cities, including San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin, were left to shoulder the lasting brunt of a catastrophic power failure, and in subfreezing conditions that Texas’ grid operators had known was coming,” AP wrote.
“The breakdown sparked growing outrage and demands for answers over how Texas—whose Republican leaders as recently as last year taunted California over the Democratic-led state’s rolling blackouts—failed such a massive test of a major point of state pride: energy independence,” the news agency added. “And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighbourhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.”
“We are very angry. I was checking on my neighbour, she’s angry, too,” said Amber Nichols in north Austin. “We’re all angry because there is no reason to leave entire neighbourhoods freezing to death.”
“I know people are angry and frustrated,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “So am I.”
Elsewhere, Texas residents—many of whom were without basic amenities in their own homes—had rescued more than 3,500 “cold-stunned” sea turtles and brought them to a temporary refuge in a convention centre in the southern part of the state, The Guardian reports. (No word on how conservation authorities plan to cope with the inevitable moment when the turtles wake up, presumably hungry and disoriented.)
A Proof Point for Green Infrastructure
New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer cast the week’s news as a glimpse of the future U.S. utilities can expect as unpredictable weather due to climate change becomes a more regular occurrence.
“The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country,” he wrote. “Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions—as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.”
And by mid-week, the experience in Texas was adding momentum to a key plank of President Joe Biden’s energy, climate, and green recovery plan.
“Energy analysts and experts said the blackouts in Texas underscore the U.S. electric system’s need for more of almost everything, from additional power lines criss-crossing the country to large-scale storage systems that can supply electricity when demand spikes or renewable generation declines,” Bloomberg Green wrote Wednesday. That could translate into a “rhetorical boost” for Biden’s call for an “‘historic investment’ in the nation’s electric grid, including better transmission systems and battery storage that would make the system more resilient amid extreme weather spurred by climate change. The investments broadly touted by Biden could help satisfy his 2035 goal of an emissions-free power system and help meet increased demand nationwide as more electric vehicles hit the roads and more buildings rely on power instead of natural gas for heat.”
“There are parts of the country right now that have excess power, that have low prices, that are not struggling, where it’s a normal Tuesday, and yet in Texas, four million people are without power,” Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Webber Energy Group, told Bloomberg earlier in the week. “This should reignite a debate about some kind of connection between our disparate grids where we can move energy to places like Texas that are desperate for it right now.”
In an opinion piece for Utility Dive, Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, explained how a more resilient U.S. electricity system would work. And the Washington Post editorial board weighed in with the view that “the Texas fiasco offers many lessons about keeping the lights on—lessons that Congress and state leaders must act on in the coming months. Not among them is the need to cancel a transition to cleaner sources of energy.”
Joining the cascade of pushback that met state legislators’ early and ongoing attempts to blame the collapse on renewables, the Post editors injected some basic reality into the discussion.
“Frozen wind turbines represent only a small fraction of the problem in Texas,” they wrote. “The real failure was a lack of preparation. Wind power generally slumps during the Texas winter, so state regulators do not assume they will get much from that power source. Rather, their plans rely heavily on natural gas power plants—and they are the predominant culprits in the current emergency.”
Collapse of a Deregulated Grid
But ultimately, the Post and many others pointed out that the real failure had to do with the (de)regulatory structures in Texas—and a failure to invest in a more resilient grid—more than with any specific technology.
“Natural gas plants, fuel pipelines, nuclear power stations and, yes, wind turbines can all operate in frigid temperatures,” the Post editors noted. “They failed in Texas because they were not hardened to withstand the sort of severe weather that struck the state this week. This was avoidable. The state saw freezing temperatures that challenged the power grid in 2011, after which the need for system upgrades and better planning was obvious. The state did too little over the next decade, and millions of Texans are now paying the price.”
Against that backdrop, “blaming renewables is a dishonest way to score political points and divert blame.” But all the factors cited by the Washington Post were aggravated in a state that has spent decades putting its own reputation for gritty independence above all else.
While “there’s been some pretty large transfers of power” among other U.S. grids as they scrambled to match electricity demand with available supplies, “there is no real ability to import very much power into the ERCOT grid,” explained Wade Schauer, Wood Mackenzie’s research director for Americas power and renewables. Ultimately, The Hill added, that was a deliberate choice: “Because the Texas grid does business only within the state, it’s not subject to oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a government body that regulates interstate transmission,” a feature that “makes Texas an outlier when it comes to FERC’s rules.”
Left to their own devices, Texas decision-makers have been only too happy to portray their grid’s dangerous isolation as an achievement.
“Utilities in Texas were smart and made an agreement that no one was going to extend power outside of Texas,” said Donna Nelson, former chair of the state Public Utility Commission, in an ERCOT promotional video.
“By eschewing transmission across state lines, the Texas utilities retained freedom,” wrote Richard D. Cudahy wrote in a 1995 article, apparently unironically titled The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection.
“This policy of isolation avoided regulation by the newly created Federal Power Commission, whose jurisdiction was limited to utilities operating in interstate commerce,” he added.
In a commentary for the Post, global opinions editor and lifelong suburban Dallas resident Karen Attiah inventoried the staggering human toll of that particular ideology, noting that friends in Africa who’d had more experience with public health crises and utility load shedding were sending her tips on how to get by.
“Deregulation is clearly a central part of the answer,” she wrote. “In the 2000s, Texas leaders opted to deregulate our independent power grid, leaving providers with no incentive to prepare for infrequent risks. After a 2011 cold spell produced a crisis, federal regulators warned that the state needed to invest in winterizing the energy supply infrastructure. That advice went unheeded. You can draw a direct line from there to market absurdities such as those we saw this week, when the wholesale price of electricity in Houston spiked from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000, while four million Texas homes had no power.”
“The frigid disaster has also laid bare the fallacy, still prominent in the Lone Star State, that oil and gas are more important than impending climate catastrophe, embarrassing a political class that just weeks ago pledged to defend the oil and gas industry—its own Alamo—from the Biden administration,” added reporter and author Richard Parker, in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “The fallacy is hard to unwind even as people are dying. But some Texans are also furious about how their state’s ruinous laissez-faire governance led to a cascade of human-caused disasters of epic proportions. Indeed, this was no act of god.”
As a bad week got worse, the situation had some Texas Republicans splitting among themselves. While Texas General Land Office Director George P. Bush tweeted blame at the wind farms, Gov. Greg Abbott somewhat unexpectedly disagreed.
“Abbott, who regularly throws out more red meat than keepers at the Houston zoo, made it a point to say that the downed power production ‘includes the natural gas & coal generators’,” Politico reported Wednesday. That might just be because “Abbott’s anxious to lure high tech companies to the Lone Star state, and renewable energy developers aren’t likely to appreciate the ad hominem attacks.”
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