The crisis that played out in Texas this week — where an Arctic blast knocked out access to the state’s power and water supplies for days, leading millions to struggle to stay warm and at least 10 people to die — didn’t have to be so dire.
Almost exactly a decade ago, in February 2011, frigid temperatures caused some of the state’s key power infrastructure, including natural gas wells, to freeze up, cutting off a major source of electricity and heating for Texans.
That power freeze wasn’t as debilitating because temperatures didn’t get as cold or stay low for as long. But it was a lesson that, in a generally warm state that relies on a separate power grid from the rest of the country, things could get much more deadly.
Not only did federal regulators identify that the state’s energy system was vulnerable to extreme cold, but even the state’s grid operator and several power suppliers all acknowledged the need for wells, pipelines, and power plants to be better protected from the low temperatures. But it’s clear that didn’t happen.
Now, as power is returning for millions of people in the state, many Texans want answers for why that early warning went unheeded.
“We had a decade to improve the system and it looks like we kind of didn’t do it. At least, we didn’t do it sufficiently,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve watched this movie before and the sequel is worse than the original.”
The 2011 rolling blackouts affected up to 3.2 million Texans — and blame was laid primarily on the ability of the state’s power resources to handle extremely cold weather.
“The majority of the problems experienced by many generators that tripped, suffered derates, or failed to start during the event were attributable, either directly or indirectly, to the cold weather itself,” according to a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation released in August 2011.
“Generators and natural gas producers suffered severe losses of capacity despite having received accurate forecasts of the storm,” the federal report continued. “Entities in both categories report having winterization procedures in place. However, the poor performance of many of these generating units and wells suggests these procedures were either inadequate or were not adequately followed.”
Even the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the nonprofit that operates the state’s central grid, determined the problems were triggered by “either insufficient or ineffective” preparation for the cold and recommended better communication and planning in the future.
The FERC report went even further, strongly advising ways the state could avoid a similar crisis in the future: by forcing power providers, which already had capabilities set up to protect power sources from heat, to also protect their wells, pipes, and plants against extreme cold. If they didn’t, the report said, the state legislature should consider fining them.
This year, a jet stream of cold air originating in the Arctic, sometimes called the polar vortex, dipped all the way down to Texas, spurring temperatures as low as 6 below zero. Some research suggests the polar vortex is becoming more destabilized due to human-made climate change, meaning Texans and others across the US could face more weather like this in the future.
“Texas' horrific experience gives a glimpse of what is ahead,” Alice Hill, a senior energy and environment fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Owners and operators of infrastructure still do not yet routinely account for the future risk of climate change in their planning, which means the country will experience more widespread failures in the future.”
As early as Feb. 7, meteorologists at the National Weather Service started warning Texas officials about an incoming winter storm and cold spell. By Feb. 13, all 254 Texas counties were under a winter storm watch. That same day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for each county.
Despite reassurances that the state’s power supply and grid were ready, problems began late Sunday night. That’s when several of the state’s generators began to go offline as equipment froze up and malfunctioned at the same time as people’s demand for electricity and heating to warm their homes reached record highs.
To avoid an uncontrolled blackout, ERCOT immediately directed a series of intentional blackouts. The state was “seconds and minutes” away from “catastrophic blackouts,” ERCOT leaders said on Thursday.
But what were supposed to be temporary rolling blackouts ended up lasting days for some people as the resources powering the grid suffered more problems. At one point, some 4 million people didn’t have power.
Ali Mostafavi’s power went out Monday afternoon and stayed out for roughly 72 hours before finally returning on Thursday morning. After sleeping in a cold home for one night, his family crashed with friends to stay warm.
“We are seeing areas that didn’t have outages at all. We’re seeing areas that have been out for the entire period,” said Mostafavi, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at Texas A&M University. “And there is no communication.”
While wealthier residents were able to use backup generators or flee to hotels to escape the cold, others resorted to burning their own belongings or fuel like propane inside to stay warm. By Tuesday, there were more than 300 cases of possible carbon monoxide poisoning in Texas’s Harris County and at least 10 people had died statewide.
And as the power started to return by midweek, a growing number of people had lost access to clean water due to frozen and burst pipes, causing some to boil melted snow or fork over $45 for three cases of water.
The blame game over the disaster started almost immediately. Gov. Abbott blamed ERCOT for the power failures, saying: “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.” Abbott, other Republican politicians, and some in conservative media were also quick to wrongly blame wind turbines, and by extension renewable energy and climate policies like the Green New Deal, for the blackouts.
But in reality, all the state’s power resources failed, especially those using fossil fuels.
“Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin. Some power plants were off for scheduled maintenance. Coal piles and equipment at coal plants froze. A nuclear plant tripped offline because of frozen equipment. Some solar panels were plagued by snow, and the blades on some wind turbines froze. By far the biggest failures stemmed from natural gas.
“They all struggled and they all underperformed,” said Webber, “but natural gas underperformed in the most dramatic fashion [and] in a nearly identical way to how it did a decade ago.”
That made it clear the changes recommended in the 2011 report — from energy operators insulating and heating pipes to grid operators lining up more back-up power to the state legislature granting regulators the authority to penalize operators for not preparing enough — had gone largely unheeded.
Even though this week’s disaster was far more devastating, the lessons learned will very likely echo those of 2011, energy experts said. Mainly, that “we can have cold snaps and the cold snaps can be devastating to our energy system, so we should winterize and prepare for it,” Webber said.
When asked why recommendations from the 2011 report weren’t followed during a media call on Thursday, ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness claimed he didn’t know which report they were referring to. He then went on to defend the grid operator’s actions.
So what will it take for the state to actually do anything about it?
Properly weatherizing the state’s sprawling power infrastructure will cost a lot of money, and it’s unlikely power suppliers will choose to do that on their own. “It’s going to come down to cost–benefit analysis,” Rhodes told BuzzFeed News. “Do we believe it will happen often enough to be worth the investment to better mitigate it?”
Moreover, the Texas grid in some ways incentivizes situations where energy demands soar. "Ninety-five percent of the year they're selling power for peanuts,” Daniel Cohen, a professor at Rice University, told the Houston Chronicle. “They're counting on selling power at times like these when power prices spike 300 times their normal rate."
And despite all the finger-pointing at ERCOT by Gov. Abbott and politicians, the nonprofit doesn’t have enforcement authority over power providers — that rests in the hands of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which oversees ERCOT, and the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees the oil and gas industry.
Whether or not energy regulators step up enforcement will likely depend on whether the Texas legislature empowers them to do so. State representatives have already scheduled a hearing to discuss what went wrong. Also, the federal oversight groups that drafted the 2011 report have announced a joint investigation into this week’s grid failures.
But in a state that prizes self-reliance and a hands-off government — and profits heavily off its oil and gas sector — it’s unclear whether these probes will result in much change.
“There’s a lot of scapegoating going on,” Webber said, “and my biggest fear is that we’re going to blame the wrong problems and the wrong people, and therefore won’t appropriately absorb the lessons learned.”