The Failure in Texas

Texas’ power grid was on the verge of failure after a cold snap brought record low temperatures, snow and rolling blackouts across the state. Millions of Texans were without power, and some people have questioned why a state that produces the most power in the US is unable to keep the lights on. Misinformation about the blackout has also started to spread online, falsely putting the blame on wind and solar energy.

Roughly 4 million people in Texas had to deal with outages for most of the week as power generators and natural gas pipes froze, crippling the state’s production capabilities. This led the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid, to administer rolling blackouts to avoid a grid failure. ERCOT ended the emergency conditions Friday because no more outages were required.

This past weekend, a winter storm made its way into Texas, bringing freezing cold to the state. As temperatures began to dip into the teens Monday morning, power plant generators across the state started to freeze and went offline, leading to a significant decrease in energy production. At the same time, demand for power increased as people turned up the thermostat.

Almost 50% of power generated by Texas comes from natural gas, with the other half divided among coal, wind, nuclear and solar. Because of the cold, however, gas can’t even make its way from the ground through the pipes. ERCOT says 46,000 megawatts were offline as of Wednesday. One megawatt is enough to power roughly 200 homes a year. There are 70 to 80 power plants offline as of Wednesday, out of 680 across the state. Thermal energy — natural gas, coal and nuclear — made up 28,000 of those megawatts while wind and solar made up the other 16,000.

Approximately 40% of generators went offline due to the cold weather. The significant drop in power generated led to rolling blackouts across the state as ERCOT tried to keep a balance between the supply and demand in order to prevent a “catastrophic” blackout. This made the outage last much longer than ERCOT anticipated.

As for prepping power plants for extreme cold to prevent generators from freezing, Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT, says there are national standards being considered, but they have yet to be mandatory.

“It’s voluntary guidelines for the individual generation companies to decide to do those things,” Woodfin said. “They have financial incentive to be able to participate in the market to follow those [regulations] and stay online, but there’s no regulation at this point.”

He went on to explain that in northern states, power generators are typically located in buildings, which help protect them in the winter. Texas, however, keeps generators outside in order to make full use of them in the summer months when energy demand is high with more homes using air conditioning. Having those generators indoors would cause an increase in heat and prevent them from being used at their full capacity. According to Woodfin, there are best practices to keep generators online during cold weather, but those were not sufficient with the extremely low temperatures.

Texas has its own independent power grid and isn’t connected to the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection grids covering the rest of the country. The state can draw power from neighboring states and Mexico, but the amount available is limited. It also didn’t help that neighboring states were in need of all their electricity to keep up with demand.

Audio of a Feb. 9 meeting of ERCOT officials suggested they may not have taken the winter storm as seriously as they could have, local news outlet KSAT-12 reported on Friday. During the two-hour and 28 minute meeting, the upcoming winter storm was discussed for less than 40 seconds, KSAT-12 said.