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Why Texas' energy grid is unable to handle the winter storms

“This has been an extraordinary event for Texas,” said Bill Magness, the CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Vehicles on a snow-capped road in Houston on Feb. 15, 2021.
Vehicles on a snow-capped road in Houston on Feb. 15, 2021.Chengyue Lao / Xinhua via Getty Images

More than 4 million Texans have lost power after a weekend storm crippled the state’s energy infrastructure.

The storm, which Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide disaster Friday, has led to at least 25 deaths, most of them in Texas, a state whose energy infrastructure was not built for weather of this magnitude. At least two are dead in a household that tried to warm up by running their car in their garage, leading to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The crisis has made the state's energy grid the focus of fresh scrutiny, primarily due to its independence from the rest of the U.S. Critics say that allowed its infrastructure to shirk federal regulations that require cold-weather capabilities.

“This has been an extraordinary event for Texas,” said Bill Magness, the CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees about 90 percent of Texas’ energy production and has ordered rolling outages across the state.

“This one went from top to bottom and all the way across, with very cold temperatures, freezing rain, snow like we haven’t seen in decades,” he said in a phone interview. “We knew coming in, it would place extraordinary demands on the electric system.”

CenterPoint Energy, which serves the Houston area, announced Tuesday that its directed outages, currently affecting 1.27 million people, “could last several more days.” Austin Energy, the community-owned electric utility for the state's capital, said Tuesday evening that ERCOT had ordered more outages, and that "it could be days before all customers have power."

Texas has been battered with single-digit temperatures, snow and sleet since Thursday, with more expected. The Dallas area saw temperatures below zero Tuesday, the coldest recorded temperature since 1949, with additional precipitation expected Wednesday.

Historically, Texas’ days of high energy demands are always in the summer, Magness said. “We were seeing demand forecasts that were close to a summer peak,” he said. The state’s two largest sources of energy, natural gas and nonhydroelectric renewables, such as wind turbines and solar power, were all severely hampered by the winter storm.

Conservative critics blamed the power outages on a failure of green energy, but that doesn't explain the problem. Wind and solar generate about only 21 percent of the state's electrical power. Instead, natural gas, which powers half the state's electrical generation — by far the largest source — was in use by home furnaces, and some power plants couldn't get enough.

“In the winter, it’s harder to get natural gas supplies, because they’re much more in demand for home heating and uses like that,” he said. Severe wind and snow have interfered with some natural gas equipment and frozen wind turbines, and the overcast weather has drastically slowed solar panel production, he said.

The problems are exacerbated because Texas, the largest energy producer and consumer in the United States, is the only state to use its own power grid. That frees it from federal regulations, including ones that could have required it to be better prepared for a freak cold snap, said Peter Fox-Penner, the founder of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.

“Texas’ deregulatory philosophy has caused them to put much less stringent rules on generators and system operators to be prepared for cold weather than other systems, where extreme cold is more common,” he said in an interview.

“They believed that this kind of ‘perfect storm’ was so unlikely that they didn’t need to require the system to prepare for it,” Fox-Penner said.

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which despite its name regulates the oil and natural gas industry in the state but not any railroads, said that the weather had stopped fossil fuel production in some parts of the state.

"Some producers, especially in the Permian Basin and Panhandle, have reported experiencing unprecedented freezing conditions which caused concerns for employee safety and affected production," the Commission announced Monday.

The one-two punch of the storm and sudden power outages have caused wide-reaching damage across the state.

For the Fagan Family Farms, a small independent organic produce farm in Kyle, Texas, lost produce from the cold snap was bad enough, but the power outage was devastating. They had about $20,000 worth of lettuce growing in the electrically heated growhouse, owner Shawn Fagan said — about a fifth of his annual business — and that's now all lost.

"I had the next generation growing in the growhouse,” he said by phone. “Not only do I not have anything in the field, I don't have anything to put in the field now.”