“My sister’s school was cancelled for five days, and it was difficult to get groceries during the outages. Stores had lines of people down the street, stores were limiting certain items and stores were sold out of many items. I have a family member that went without electricity for some days.”
These are the words of Nicole Tank, a Northwestern second-year from a city outside of Austin. Though her family did not lose power, they and countless others were still affected by the widespread power outages that hit Texas last week as record breaking temperatures chilled the nation.
With around a quarter of the state lacking power and 4.5 million people experiencing widespread power outages, Texans have been struggling to find water, warmth and other essential supplies to stay safe in the freezing temperatures. The cause for these near statewide blackouts is complex, but essentially comes down to the mismanagement of Texas’s independent power grid and the new realities of climate change.
Texas’ energy grid
Unlike most states, Texas has the resources and demand to be completely self-sufficient in their energy production. Most states rely on others to provide resources that are unavailable to their region of the country, and therefore participate in the national energy system. Texas, however, is able to supply and consume multiple types of energy completely independently. It creates its own energy through coal, nuclear energy, solar power, wind and natural gas all within their state borders.
Texas began developing their own power grid during World War II. Following the independent sentiment of the Lone Star State, the energy grid was created to prevent federal regulation and interference with Texas’s power system.
The problem with this self-sufficient strategy for energy production arises when the grid fails. Since the majority of Texas’s energy production is completely isolated from that of the rest of the country, it cannot import energy from other regions. Freezing temperatures and over demand of energy affected the part of the grid that serves 90% of the state, and Texas couldn’t redirect energy to this area before it failed. The company that controls this portion of the grid is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), who is facing the most backlash and blame for the outages.
This isn’t the first time Texas’ energy structure experienced this problem. One energy company, Luminant, was fined $750,000 in 2011 after a storm resulted in equipment failures and power outages. The same company later received backlash in 2014 when freezing temperatures caused 12 generator failures in 12 hours.
The Texas Public Utility Commission investigated these initial power outages and found that energy companies like Luminant and ERCOT were poorly prepared to supply energy in cold weather. It required energy companies to assess their equipment and operations to find any potential problems and immediately address them. However, the TPUC eased up on its demands after receiving pushback from the companies. Instead, the power companies only needed to fix problems they already knew of, ignoring any other potential problems that could arise from cold weather completely.
Why did Texas have a near-statewide blackout?
The freezing temperatures drastically increased demand for energy, as people across the state simultaneously turned up their heating. Texas’s power grid is not equipped to handle this excess demand, so the operators initiated what are called rolling blackouts, which conserves power by alternating different communities’ access to electricity. If it weren’t for these rolling blackouts, the Texas power grid would have only been minutes away from failing completely. While these blackouts were only supposed to last 45 minutes each, some ended up lasting 12 hours or longer.
In addition to the increased demand, multiple forms of Texas’ energy supply were harmed by the cold; wind turbines and gas lines froze while nuclear and coal plants struggled to transmit power. Approximately 46,000 megawatts of power, which is typically enough to power 9 million homes, were removed from Texas’s power grid last week because of generator failures from the freezing temperatures.
As previously explained, power companies in Texas neither looked for nor addressed many problems associated with their equipment’s inability to function under cold weather conditions, which left the power grid more vulnerable to last week’s freezing temperatures. Alongside limited supply and increased demand, this contributed to the grid’s overall failure.
The lack of foresight for potential flaws in the system has been attributed by many to the deregulation of Texas’ power grid. Texas has a privatized energy system, which allows for more competition between energy companies, more choices for consumers, and cheaper prices. Consumers are usually satisfied with their energy supply and cheaper prices, but this structure is much less reliable in cases of emergencies. Combined with Texas’s lack of an alternative energy source, its privatized system contributed to the widespread power outages that took place last week.
What’s happening to Texans?
Texas’s power grid failures have immense and diverse consequences. First and foremost, people are without electricity and therefore without heat in record-breaking cold temperatures. As Nicole Tank explained, this creates a domino effect of consequences, like school closures and difficulty obtaining necessities.
Since Texas’ power system is completely privatized, most consumers do not pay a fixed amount for their electricity. Instead, they pay wholesale prices that typically keep their bills relatively cheap. However, Texans have had to pay thousands of dollars in electricity bills this past week as prices soar. The Public Utilities Commission cap of $9 per kilowatt hour could still result in over $100 per day of electricity payments. One Texas resident had to spend nearly all of his savings on his $16,752 electricity bill, a price 70 times higher than usual.
Along with a lack of electricity and skyrocketing prices, 13 million Texans are experiencing water disruptions. This includes needing to boil their water for safe consumption, broken pipes and failing water systems overall.
There is also an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning as people without power try to find warmth in unconventional ways, like running their cars in enclosed areas. More than 100 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning have been reported at The Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston since the power outages began.
Congressional responses, or the lack thereof
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was caught flying to Cancún, Mexico with his family on Feb. 17, which created a major media controversy. Pictures of the senator circulated social media as outraged users exposed Cruz for leaving his constituents in a state of emergency.
Cruz returned days later, stating that the trip was a vacation for his daughters after their school was cancelled. “In hindsight, if I had understood how it would be perceived, the reaction people would have, obviously I wouldn’t have done it,” Cruz told reporters. He also said that he started getting second thoughts as soon as he was on the plane.
Upon returning to Texas, Cruz tweeted pictures of himself volunteering with disaster relief efforts, but has since received backlash for what many people are saying was an opportunistic photoshoot.
Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) raised over $5 million for disaster relief for Texans. She and Texas representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) volunteered and met with Texans throughout last week.
Former Representative Beto O’Rourke also initiated disaster relief efforts, raising donations and handing out water from his truck. On the same day Cruz left for Cancún, O’Rourke held an event to help senior citizens, making 151,000 phone calls checking in on elderly Texans.
The role of renewable energy and the new realities of climate change
Some conservatives blamed the power outages last week on the failure of renewable energy sources, like wind turbines. However, these claims are completely unfounded. In fact, of the 45 gigawatts of energy that were offline by Wednesday, 28 were from thermal energy sources and only 18 were from renewable sources. For ERCOT’s supply of energy, which accounted for the largest portion of blackouts, only 7% of its expected winter supply (6 gigawatts) was predicted to come from wind sources, while 80% (67 gigawatts) was predicted to come from natural gas, coal, or nuclear power.
While renewable energy is not to blame for the power outages, climate change may have contributed to the freezing temperatures. On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez drew the connection between the emergency in Texas and the climate change crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez’s reference to climate change may be referring to a debated line of research regarding the weakening of the jet stream. This research suggests that overall rising temperatures in the Arctic will weaken the jet stream, which buffers North America and Europe from Arctic cold. A weakened jet stream would allow freezing temperatures to flow south and result in the type of weather witnessed last week all over the country.
Some climate experts warn that the events that transpired last week in Texas are a grave example of the unpredictability of climate change; while scientists understand the overall effects of climate change – the climate of a specific region will be exaggerated to the extreme – there is still a chance that climate change will result in completely unknown effects. In other words, states with climates like Texas may have been inclined to prepare for extreme heat in their future, but it is possible that climate change could result in the exact opposite.
“What I do hope comes from this event is an increased emphasis on preparation,” Tank said. “Texans knew this storm was coming for many days before the snow hit. I wish snow plows, more food, backup generators, etc. were brought into the state prior to the storm … I hope that, next time something like this happens, there are more preemptive measures taken.”