During a week of historic snow and ice and record low freezing temperatures, the Texas power grid failed and left millions in the dark to fend for themselves. The winter storm wreaked havoc on the state and was responsible for one of the worst blackouts Texas has ever seen, potentially worse than those created by past hurricanes.
Officials say many factors are to blame for the blackouts, but right now, Texas residents want answers and a promise that it will never happen again. As of early Friday, just under 200,000 residents still lacked electricity, mostly due to downed power lines, trees, and water breaks in their homes. Millions of Texas residents are also still without safe and clean drinking water.
Meanwhile, there are investigations into the massive electrical grid failure, which the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said was minutes or even seconds away from catastrophic failure. ERCOT manages almost 90 percent of Texas’s electric power, or the flow of electricity to over 26 million Texas residents.
Electric experts are saying some steps can prevent future problems with the electric grid, including increasing the state’s reserves and weatherizing electrical equipment to prepare for extreme weather.
While millions have had power restored to them after one of the deadliest winter storms to hit Texas, many had to brave record low temperatures at home, in the dark, with no heat.
Professor Daniel Cohan of Rice University said: “We need to better realize how vulnerable our energy systems are, both electricity and the vulnerability of electricity and natural gas systems together. This is going to take some regrouping, and there’s not going to be a single step. We’re going to need a portfolio of steps.”
The intense winter storm dumped ice and snow across the Midwest as well as the South, knocking out electricity while customers were turning up thermostats to keep warm during the frigid temperatures. All power sources were impacted — natural gas, coal, crude oil, solar, and wind production, all went offline. Pipelines froze, and it prevented the flow of crude and natural gas. But most of the outages occurred in Texas while the grid had to shed its load, unable to keep up with the rising demand.
The winter weather event was a rare one that impacted record numbers of people. This past weekend, every Texas county had a winter weather warning. Usually, if a weather event hits only some of the 254 counties, the unaffected areas can take overproduction. This time, it was impossible due to icy road conditions, which hampered travel and servicing of vital equipment.
While the Lone Star State is accustomed to extreme heat and even drought, the state’s infrastructure wasn’t made to withstand extremely cold temperatures or ice. The current infrastructure will meet the demands 99.9 percent of the time. But not for frigid weather.
Texas’s power grid is a stand-alone system that’s not regulated. ERCOT controls most of the power and operates and trades through supply and demand while bringing in the least expensive type of energy which it often does, rather than fortify its infrastructure.
Cohan said, “Texas has chosen to operate its power grid as an island.” The problem with that is that Texas can’t call on other states when it needs more electricity. Conversely, the state usually has more power than it needs during the spring and fall but can’t export it.
The bottom line is that ERCOT underestimated what the winter storm could do. It forecast how much power it needed under all eventualities, but what was realized exceeded all its estimates.
Electrical prices are now surging in Texas, while contract obligations are forcing utility companies to purchase power at any given price. The unregulated power market makes a bad situation even worse, and energy producers are purchasing megawatts through an open market. The increased cost is likely to be reflected on Texas residents’ utility bills.
Still, some people are saying that renewables are responsible for the blackouts because wind and solar went offline when frozen blades led to inoperable turbines. But most of the outages came from natural gas production issues.
Some analysts believe a slowdown in renewables will occur in Texas as natural gas producers expand their buildout. While renewables can’t increase production at will, coal and natural gas can, so it’s the easiest, quickest solution to the current problem.
But, energy storage could make renewables more dependable as an energy alternative. However, some analysts point out that Texas isn’t incentivized to invest and make the changes and improvements needed.
Analysts from Raymond James noted, “The central idea is that power consumption can be temporarily curtailed in times of peak demand, but instead of doing it disruptively as is the case with load-shedding, it is done in a controlled manner.”
Texas Governor, Greg Abbot, said: “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours. Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”