Millions of people in Texas awoke on Wednesday without heat again, as catastrophic power failures continued to plague the state following a historic winter storm that has killed 23 people so far.
A week of below-freezing temperatures has knocked about a third of the state’s generating capacity offline, resulting in the greatest forced blackout in U.S. history and exposing weaknesses of Texas’ unique approach to power grid management.
The deep freeze sent energy demand soaring to near record highs on Sunday night, with Texas’ main grid approaching an electricity load of 70,000 megawatts, a level normally seen only on the hottest summer days.
The following day, electrical load, or the amount of electricity available on the grid, had dropped to around 45,000 MW, as power generators ill-equipped for the cold weather were forced to take plants offline.
Texas is the only contiguous state with its own power grid, meaning it is not linked to other states and so cannot borrow power from them, a system the state implemented in order to avoid federal regulation.
The unique system, which avoids regulation in favor of market incentives, is now facing backlash for allowing power generators to shirk preparations for a once-in-a-decade winter storm.
It’s a ‘Wild West market design based only on short-run prices,’ Matt Breidert, a portfolio manager at a firm called TortoiseEcofin, told the Washington Post.
After approaching record demand typically only seen on the hottest summer days, the amount of electricity available on Texas’ grid plunged more than a third early on Monday
More than 3 million people in Texas were without power early Wednesday. Experts blame Texas’ independent energy grid, which avoids regulation in favor of market incentives
People seeking shelter from below freezing temperatures rest inside a church warming center Tuesday in Houston. Millions in Texas still had no power on Wednesday
Around 3.4 million people in Texas were without power early Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us.
That includes 1.4 million people in the Houston metropolitan area. A quarter of homes in Dallas were dark.
Though some have blamed the catastrophe on frozen wind turbines, the power grid in Texas relies heavily on natural gas, responsible for nearly half the electricity generated.
Wind shutdowns accounted less than 13 percent of the 30 to 35 gigawatts of total outages, said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at the state’s grid operator.
Poor winter infrastructure in Texas has brought the natural gas system grinding to a halt, with drilling fluid freezing in gas pipes, frozen wellheads unable to produce, and diesel-fueled pumps refusing to start.
Even coal plants went offline as coal piles were frozen to the ground, and one of the two reactors of the South Texas Nuclear Power Station had to be shut down after the cooling pumps froze.
While similar facilities in the Northern states are equipped to handle extended temperatures below freezing, Texas, which hasn’t experienced a similar cold snap in a decade, simply didn’t have the infrastructure in place to weather the storm.
As the state’s electrical supply plunged, demand soared to levels normally only seen during the hottest summer days. Texans, many in poorly insulated homes, were trying desperately to keep warm, plugging in electric heaters and cranking up their thermostats.
A natural gas power plant is seen near Dallas. Poor winter infrastructure in Texas has brought the natural gas system grinding to a halt, with drilling fluid freezing in gas pipes
Pike Electric service trucks line up after a snow storm on Tuesday in Fort Worth, Texas. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather and power outages to Texas
Energy demand outstripped supply as the storm hit, causing massive forced outages
The result was an epic crisis of supply unable to meet demand. After approaching record peaks typically only seen on the hottest summer days, the electricity load on Texas’ grid, or the amount of electricity available, plunged more than a third from Sunday night into Monday.
The shortages caused the wholesale price of electricity to spike to the price cap of $9,000 for 1 megawatt-hour of power — up from just $30 a week ago.
In other states, broad regional power grids allow states to tap into their neighbors’ generating supply during a crisis, but Texas is unique.
Alone among the contiguous states, Texas maintains its own power grid that does not cross state lines, in order to avoid federal regulation.
Called the Texas Interconnection, the grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) — the system operator that has faced heavy backlash for the planning failures that led to the catastrophe.
Even as its own projections showed a crisis in the making last week, ERCOT has been accused of downplaying the issue and failing to properly warn Texans of impending widespread outages.
On Monday, ERCOT sent out a tweet urging people not to do laundry on Valentine’s Day to conserve energy — a measure some viewed as inadequate in proportion to the crisis.
ERCOT officials still can’t say when power will be restored. ‘I know it’s frustrating we can’t offer a time certain, but it’s a process we’re engaged in to get the grid back in balance,’ ERCOT chief executive officer Bill Magness said during a news conference Tuesday.
ERCOT chief executive officer Bill Magness still can’t say when power will be restored. ERCOT is the grid operator of the Texas Interconnection, the state’s independent power grid
Alone among the contiguous states, Texas maintains its own power grid that does not cross state lines, in order to avoid federal regulation. It is called the Texas Interconnection
Deep freeze cuts oil production by a third
Crude oil output has dropped by a third in the winter storm, industry sources told Bloomberg.
Texas’s Permian Basin, the nation’s largest oil field, has seen production drop as much as 65% in the cold snap.
The U.S. deep freeze should disrupt production for several days if not weeks, industry experts said, as wellheads have frozen and refineries have been shut.
WTI crude rose 17 cents, or 0.3 percent, to $60.22 a barrel on Wednesday.
Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the problem was a lack of weatherized power plants and a statewide energy market that doesn’t incentivize companies to generate electricity when demand is low.
In Texas, demand peaks in August, at the height of the state’s sweltering summers.
He rejected that the storm went beyond what ERCOT could have anticipated.
‘That’s nonsense. It’s not acceptable,’ Hirs said. ‘Every eight to 10 years we have really bad winters. This is not a surprise.’
The outages are the widest Texas’ grid has suffered but hardly a first in winter.
A decade ago, another deep February freeze created power shortages in Texas the same week the Super Bowl was played in Arlington. A federal report later flagged failures in the system, including power plants that are unable to stand up to extreme cold.
The latest 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.
And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighborhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.
Questions remain over why the lights were still on in skyscrapers in downtown Houston on Tuesday night when the neighboring suburbs were plunged into darkness
‘We are very angry. I was checking on my neighbor, she´s angry, too,’ said Amber Nichols, whose north Austin home has had no power since early Monday. ‘We´re all angry because there is no reason to leave entire neighborhoods freezing to death.’
She crunched through ice wearing a parka and galoshes, while her neighbors dug out their driveways from six inches of snow to move their cars.
‘This is a complete bungle,’ she said.
The toll of the outages was causing increasing worry. Harris County emergency officials reported ‘several carbon monoxide deaths’ in or around Houston and reminded people not to operate cars or gasoline-powered generators indoors.
Authorities said three young children and their grandmother, who were believed to be trying to keep warm, also died in a suburban Houston house fire early Tuesday.
In Galveston, the medical examiner’s office requested a refrigerated truck to expand body storage, although County Judge Mark Henry said he didn’t know how many deaths there had been related to the weather.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott called for an investigation of the grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. His indignation struck a much different tone than just a day earlier, when he told Texans that ERCOT was prioritizing residential customers and that power was getting restored to hundreds of thousands of homes.
Frozen: More than 4million people in Texas were without power yesterday afternoon in subzero temperatures for the fourth day in a row.
People wait in a long line to buy groceries at H-E-B on South Congress Avenue during an extreme cold snap and widespread power outage on Tuesday in Austin, Texas
But hours after those assurances, the number of outages in Texas only rose, at one point exceeding 4 million customers. ‘This is unacceptable,’ Abbott said.
By late Tuesday afternoon, ERCOT officials said some power had been restored, but they warned that even those gains were fragile and more outages were possible.
The grid began preparing for the storm a week ahead of time, but it reached a breaking point early Monday as conditions worsened and knocked power plants offline, ERCOT president Bill Magness said.
Some wind turbine generators were iced, but nearly twice as much power was wiped out at natural gas and coal plants. Forcing controlled outages was the only way to avert an even more dire blackout in Texas, Magness said.
‘What we’re protecting against is worse,’ he claimed.
On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Texas had requested 60 generators and that hospitals and nursing homes would get priority.
Thirty-five warming shelters were opened to accommodate more than 1,000 people around the state, FEMA said during a briefing. But even they weren’t spared from the outages, as Houston was forced to close two on Monday because of a loss in power.