A winter storm left more than 50,000 Texans without electricity last week, despite Governor Greg Abbott’s reassurance that “the lights will stay on” this time, a year after a severe winter cold snap left millions in darkness and caused hundreds of deaths.
“Despite the misery, death, economic disruption, and embarrassment that Texas suffered, little has changed,” writes Texas Monthly. “The state remains susceptible to the threat that another winter storm could inflict blackouts as bad as—or even worse than—last year’s catastrophe.”
“Although Abbott said in November that he ‘can guarantee the lights will stay on’ in the state the next time severe winter weather rolled through, the governor cautioned Tuesday that he could not promise that ‘load shed’ events would not unfold this week,” reports the Washington Post. That term refers to a planned blackout to avoid a grid collapse when energy demand exceeds supply.
Texas Democrats say Abbott is refusing to own up to his role in the 2021 grid failure, and has not done enough to make good on his promise to solve the problems on the state grid.
“The fact is the governor was warned for years before 2021 when this storm happened that we had vulnerabilities in the grid and did nothing,” said former Democratic congress member and aspiring governor Beto O’Rourke.
In 2011, the state was warned that the grid was uniquely vulnerable to cold weather, but still failed to invest in winterizing infrastructure. In comparison, many other states that made it safely through the deep freeze had taken such measures, indicating that the events in Texas were avoidable, Texas Monthly says.
In the aftermath, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) admitted the state was “seconds and minutes” from a catastrophic grid collapse that could have lasted weeks or months.
Abbott has claimed the 2021 outage was caused by unreliable renewable sources—an assertion that has been spread by fossil fuel companies and other proponents of Big Oil. The myth was debunked, but it continues to influence energy policy. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) recently cited it as one reason for withdrawing his support for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, despite analysis pointing to failures at Texas’ natural gas plants as the major culprit, and not renewable energy, writes Inside Climate News.
The extreme cold in 2021 caused a spike in demand for natural gas to heat homes, coinciding with low supply because companies that extract and deliver natural gas were offline due to frozen equipment. In response, ERCOT initiated blackouts over much of the state.
Ice formation also reduced capacity from wind supply, and solar power was not substantial enough to pick up the slack from other power sources, Inside Climate recalls. But because the majority of power was supplied by natural gas, the majority of the grid failure resulted from natural gas shortages.
“The idea that wind and solar were the problem, when our grid is dominated by fossil fuels, doesn’t add up in any way,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
In the year since, Texas energy policy has focused on fortifying natural gas infrastructure rather than capitalizing “on a huge opportunity to build a more resilient electrical grid by promoting energy efficiency and distributed energy,” says Canary Media.
This year’s storm is not expected to be a repeat of 2021’s deep freeze. But power outages, even those that are less severe than last year’s, are still especially concerning for citizens who rely on medical equipment.
“Worryingly, a handful of Texas counties with high rates of power outages also have high numbers of people who need power for medical devices,” writes The Verge. That means greater resilience is essential if the state is to protect its most vulnerable residents from power outages caused by extreme weather events.