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Texas Was "Seconds And Minutes" Away From An Uncontrolled Blackout, Officials Said

By Thursday, outages had left 500,000 without power and led to at least 10 deaths.

Posted on February 18, 2021, at 2:37 p.m. ET

The Washington Post via Getty Images

People line up outdoors in the rain to fill their propane tanks in Houston on Feb. 17.

Texas was so unprepared for the powerful winter storm that hit the state this week that it was “seconds and minutes” away from an uncontrolled blackout, energy officials said on Thursday. Such a grid failure would have led many more people in the state to lose power for an indefinite period of time.

An unprecedented Arctic cold front hobbled the state’s power supplies early this week, just as demand for electricity and heating was spiking. The deadly combination resulted in more than 4 million people losing power, some for multiple days in a row. Some people reportedly burned their own belongings to stay warm. Others risked carbon monoxide poisoning to run generators and burn propane and other fuels in their homes to provide heat. At least 10 people have died so far.

Texas is the only state in the contiguous US to have its own power grid, which is mainly operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.

ERCOT and Gov. Greg Abbott have drawn harsh criticism for their lack of preparation for the crisis, especially after a 2011 cold spell exposed that the state’s grid was vulnerable to failing in severe winter weather conditions.

But the situation could have been even more catastrophic if ERCOT hadn't imposed the blackouts that they did, energy officials said Thursday.

“The fundamental thing we have to do to protect reliability is to ensure there’s not a catastrophic blackout — to ensure we don’t get in a situation where we are starting the grid from scratch and power could be out for an indeterminate amount of time,” Bill Magness, ERCOT's president and CEO, said on a press call. “That is the disaster scenario that’s our central job to avoid.”

When asked about how close the state was to experiencing the worst-case scenario of an uncontrolled blackout, Magness responded, “It was seconds and minutes.”

While this type of blackout for an indefinite period of time would have been catastrophic, the ongoing power outages and record low temperatures have caused unprecedented suffering in the state, as hundreds of thousands of people are still struggling to stay warm.

As of Thursday morning, more than 500,000 people in the state still had no power, according to tracking by the group PowerOutage.US. Texans have been given little to no information about when the lights and heating would return.

Parts of the state’s power supply weren’t accessible this week due to frozen equipment at natural gas, coal, and nuclear facilities, and frozen wind turbines to a lesser extent, officials said. By last weekend, all 254 Texas counties were under a winter storm warning. By Tuesday morning, Dallas and Houston had both clocked their coldest temperatures in roughly 30 years.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”

Abbott has called for an investigation into ERCOT and the power problems. Dade Phalen, the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, requested a legislative hearing next week to discuss what led to the blackouts. “Texans look forward to hearing some answers,” Phalen tweeted.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.