Millions of Texans were left without power over the weekend, and more than 3 million remain in the dark as temperatures have plunged into the single digits in much of the state. More than a dozen deaths have been linked to the power outages—including some people experiencing homelessness who died from exposure to the cold—and hundreds of others have been treated at hospitals. The power outages, which began Monday, were initially promised to last around 15 minutes, but some residents have reported hours to days without electricity. The temperatures inside some homes have dropped to the 40s and lower. And in anguished comments on social media, angry Texans have wondered who’s to blame for these dangerous conditions. It turns out that it’s a whole bundle of issues, all happening at once.
The simplest factor is that Texas is not equipped to handle winter weather, let alone one of the most brutal cold spells in decades. In many parts of Texas, temperatures have hovered some 40 or 50 degrees below average. The heating needed to maintain a comfortable environment is immense, and houses in the state are often not insulated to retain heat but instead to cast it off. Texas power grids also aren’t set up for the cold. In more northern states, the physical elements of power infrastructure are “winterized” to help them withstand subzero temperatures. In Texas, though, they can be disabled by ice and busted fuel lines. Trees that flourish in the subtropical heat can crack in the cold, falling onto power lines. Instruments can stop working. In addition, the state’s power grid is not prepared for the extreme energy demands of the past week. According to experts, the power system in Texas is oriented around the summer, when air conditioning strains the grid. Winter months are often a time for power plants to step back or shutter for maintenance and repairs. The kinds of resources they can tap into in the summer aren’t available.
There are still things we don’t know for certain—if there were a significant number of downed power lines or cracked fuel lines, for example—but some experts argue that the design of Texas’ system lends itself to these crises. Of all the continental states, Texas alone has its own power grid. (The rest of the continental U.S. is covered by two other grids.) The reason for this is very Texan: The utilities wanted to avoid the oversight from the federal government that comes with interstate business. So Texas developed a massive market governed by the rules of supply and demand that led to low prices for consumers.
But according to Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, there’s no incentive for Texas power generators to jump in at a moment’s notice, thanks to the way the market is structured. The average wholesale price of electricity for the past decade or so has been lower than what it costs to provide that electricity. He notes that the high-cost generators know they have to be ready to go in the summer, but after that, they “button up and go fishing,” and it can be difficult to bring them back online quickly. For some companies, providing that reserve power in offseason times, such as February, could prove very rewarding if an unusual spike happens. But it’s a high-risk venture, and larger companies are motivated to avoid sinking so much into the cost of producing supply without a reliable demand. So Texas doesn’t have a lot of reserve power.
Julie Cohn, a historian with affiliations at the Baker Institute at Rice University and at the Center for Public History at the University of Houston, added that in Texas there is no law or regulatory entity requiring a power system to have a certain amount of backup in case of a sudden spike in demand, as is the case elsewhere. It’s possible that, because of its isolation, the Texas grid was unable to pull power from the surrounding regions. But as Gürcan Gülen, an independent energy consultant and a former researcher at UT Austin, noted, the surrounding regions were dealing with their own blackouts, so it’s unlikely that would have helped much.
At least one expert has argued that Texas had little reserve power on hand simply because it had little need to worry, given its abundant natural gas resources. But natural gas, which powers a large percentage of Texas electricity plants, was a major culprit in this week’s blackouts. Multiple technological elements in the extraction and distribution of natural gas failed in the extreme temperatures, knocking out about half of its normal output. This would have been a huge problem even if natural gas’s role in the state’s power generation wasn’t taken into account: Texans rely heavily on natural gas for heat and fuel during the winter, and when demand skyrocketed as temperatures plunged, the utilities were forced to prioritize individual houses and hospitals over the power plants. And even then, some of those power plants that received the natural gas were forced to halt operations due to the cold.
The cold was punishing for other power sources as well: At least one nuclear power plant partially shut down in the cold, and some coal generators failed in the frigid temperatures. And, as many conservative commentators noted, wind turbines at Texas’ numerous wind farms iced over. But experts note that wind turbines do not typically provide a significant portion of the region’s power in the winter. “That’s just nonsense,” Hirs said. “Sure, the wind guys went down. But they’re not counted on to provide electricity 24/7 anyway.” Cohn pointed out that the incident should not count against wind energy in general—it, too, could be adapted to withstand the cold—and that the larger crisis came from natural gas.
So how does Texas avoid a future crisis like this? While the state has just one grid, there are countless entities involved in energy production in Texas. “Private companies, regulated utilities, rural co-ops, municipal entities—there is a big, confusing morass of people and companies and governments,” Cohn said. “It’s really hard to point the finger. There are so many moving parts.”
As a result, Cohn doesn’t think there’s one simple solution. Winterizing equipment—no small or cheap endeavor, given the vastness of Texas’ infrastructure—could help. As could refiguring the way customers in a network pay for their power, to fund those winterizing efforts or make room for more reserve power.
Gülen, an economist, said he doesn’t know if everyone will agree that something needs to change. “These kinds of things, you have to do some kind of risk analysis: Can you really invest in a redundancy for an event that is a one-in-a-hundred-years event?” he said. “These are tough decisions.” He said that he was also skeptical that a more traditionally regulated market would have caused companies to make any different choices. “No utility administrator would approve anything like that,” he said.
Hirs thinks the solution is to restructure the market with input from the state Legislature. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed anger over the situation and called for an accounting of the missteps that led to the outages. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott declared that the reform of the state agency overseeing the grid would be an emergency item on the legislative agenda. Hirs expressed some concerns that, after a disastrous 2011 winter storm, “there were investigations and reports and everybody nodded their heads and said these are great recommendations and filed them in a dustbin in Austin.” But if legislators were serious about avoiding more blackouts, they would compensate the power generators for times in fallow months when they don’t turn profits. “It’s important to keep the equipment up,” he said. “And it’s important to realize that if reliability is a goal, you have to pay for that.”