Why Texas Went Dark

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S1: Hello, Slate plus members, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate will only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate dotcom slash survey. All right, here’s the show. When I got Josh Rhodes on the line on Wednesday, he was at his friend’s mom’s house west of Austin because his friend’s mom still had power. Like millions of other Texans, Josh didn’t. The massive winter storm that has devastated Texas knocked out power where he lives in Austin.

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S2: We lost power at about 2:00 a.m. on Monday. I really didn’t notice until about when I woke up the next morning, somewhere around 6:00, you know, and nothing was on is that eerie silence.

S1: He stumbled around in that silence, found flashlights and candles and then improvised a morning routine.

S2: I do a lot of camping. I’ve got camping stoves and you know where it’ll make breakfast. And I found a hankering for coffee where it was able to make coffee. And then we’re just trying to figure out what’s going on when we’re going to get power again

S1: after more than a day of no power. The temperature inside Josh’s house was hovering in the 50s, and Josh is comparatively lucky given what other Texans are facing. People here are literally freezing to death who can’t get no propane to try to live.

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S2: Operator, more batteries, more candles. You know, we

S1: can’t we can’t even find a generator. We can’t find nothing. At least 16 people in Texas have died since Monday. Millions have been living without power or heat. Houston, Austin and Fort Worth have all had boil water advisories. And hospitals are treating hundreds of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as Texans try to heat their homes with grills or generators. And it’s unclear when any of this will end. You posted this picture on Twitter of you working out of your car, right? When did you make the decision or have the realization that you had to do that?

S2: Oh, it is too cold to type like, you know, when your fingers are starting to freeze in. The comments don’t help.

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S1: Many Texans have nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help. Then there are others who, like Josh, have been improvising ways to stay warm. And this power failure is literally Josh’s work. He’s a researcher at UT Austin, where he studies energy. He also helped found a company that consults on energy issues for everyone from BP to the Wind Solar Alliance. And in particular, Josh, study, something you may have heard about in the past few days, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, known as Bercot.

S2: The Texas grid is my specialty. And so, like, I’m trying, as you know, trying to gather as much information as I could to figure out what’s going on and at the same time trying to help people find places to go. And it was all the way up and down the street. I mean, people you can see people’s cars were running in their in their driveways as they’re just trying to trying to warm up because that’s the only thing we had. They could do it.

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S1: Today on the show, why the Texas power grid failed so badly, leaving millions of people in the cold and the dark. I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. In the United States, there are three main power grids, one for the east of the country, one for the west and a separate one for Texas,

S2: Texas have this kind of bravado about we like to do things our own way and we don’t want any interference from, you know, any kind of federal government. But the real truth is it evolves organically that way. When electricity systems started, when they began, we didn’t think we were going to be able to send power very far. Then we realized, like as technology advanced, OK, we can connect these areas and we could share resources and that’ll be better. And so in Texas, we were connecting like the major load centers like Houston and Dallas, Austin, San Antonio. But but if you look beyond that, you have to go quite far before you hit any more major areas. And so Texas is just kind of evolved to have its own system. And then by the time we got to the point where we had the technology that we could connect everything. There’s federal oversight for all of these other areas in Texas is kind of decided that, you know, we like to do things our own way. And that’s kind of what we’re doing.

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S1: Yeah. How much of this was about avoiding federal regulation, do you think?

S2: I mean, I think that that’s always kind of in kind of the Texas libertarian mindset. I mean, the joke is you scratch any Texan deep enough, you’ll find a libertarian down there somewhere.

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S1: Well, how does power generation work in Texas? How is that Texas grid powered?

S2: So Texas has a pretty good mix of different types of power plants. About half of the power plants we have run off natural gas. About 20 percent of them are wind, about 20 percent coal, 11 percent nuclear. And then the others are just kind of smaller, smaller bits. But we have what we call an energy only market in a lot of places. Like there’s one company that owns everything. They own the power plants, they own the lines, and they’re the ones you write a check to every month. But in Texas is different. We have a bunch of private companies that own power plants and we have a bunch of private companies that sell power to businesses and homes. And so those two entities, the power plants and these retail electric providers, they operate on this thing called the wholesale market.

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S1: The nonprofit that manages that market is Urca. You can think of them as the middleman in charge of making sure power gets from the plant to the retailer at the right price. And the idea behind this setup, having lots of companies selling power, is that it is supposed to be cheaper for customers, that having companies compete should bring the price down.

S2: That’s not the way they do it in other parts of the country. But that’s the way we’ve decided to do it, because we feel like that that’s the most efficient way of allocating resources and capital, not having wasteful spending on things that we don’t that we don’t need.

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S1: You’re describing a deregulated energy market, correct?

S2: Yes, that is exactly what I’m describing.

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S1: In that scenario where you have different people generating power and selling it, how do those various entities know the right amount to get to the consumer? How does the supply and demand work?

S2: So electricity systems have to be perfectly matched, supply and demand, because otherwise, if they get any out of whack, really very much at all, the whole system will come crashing down. Demand is set by everyone using electricity. So, I mean, everyone who’s got, you know, working on their computer, running their air conditioner or heater or all this kind of stuff, all that aggregated up together is our demand.

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S1: Normally, that demand would signal to the power companies to make just enough electricity to meet it. But when something massive and unexpected happens, like everyone in every county in Texas trying to use their heat all at once, those companies can’t work fast enough. And Urca can’t match up supply and demand. And in this real time market, there’s very little power, say, stored in batteries. So if things aren’t matched up perfectly, the grid fails. That all seems, at least from where I’m sitting, to feel really fragile.

S2: It kind of is. I mean, if you really think about it, I mean, we do our best to make sure we have enough such that people are able to forget about it. I mean, it’s on the top of people, everyone’s mind right now. But it is it is a very delicate balance,

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S1: this balancing act only making what gets used with minimal storage. That was one of the first things that Josh thought about when he saw the weather forecast last week.

S2: We saw a forecast of temperatures in the single digits. And I’m just like, that doesn’t happen here. And like, every once in a while we get forecasts like that. But honestly, like, they usually just trend up over time. Like they get they get better and better and better over time. And so I’m afraid, like a lot of people are going to be like, why didn’t we see this coming? Is like, well, every time this we see this coming before, like, it doesn’t materialize. But, you know, when it got about three or four days out and they were consistent, that’s when I really started to get concerned. But like, I don’t think I myself even fully appreciated, like, how much strain that was going to put on our natural gas system, which would then put strain on our electricity system, which would then bring both of them down.

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S1: Well, let’s go through that moment by moment so the temperatures start to drop to these precipitous places. What is happening at that point for energy producers and for power operators?

S2: So there’s a there’s a couple of things that are happening. So demand is starting to go up because about 60 percent of the homes in Texas heat their homes with electricity and the other 40 percent use natural gas, roughly Balts. And so as those temperatures fall and are relatively uninsulated, houses are feeling that pressure heaters start kicking on. Our houses are built for a 30 degree temperature differential in the summer, not a 60 degree temperature differential in the wintertime. And so not only are we demanding a lot of electricity for for heating, but we’re also demanding a lot of natural gas for heating. But about half of our power plants are trying to also consume that natural gas to make electricity.

S1: So to recap, houses needing electricity and natural gas for heat, power plants needing that same natural gas to make electricity, one answer would be to pull more natural gas from the ground. But when everything is frozen, that doesn’t work either. And that’s where the power cuts come in. Josh says they were supposed to be rolling blackouts, brief shutdowns to spare the grid. You turn off everything except for the critical circuits, the ones that serve a hospital or fire station and then turn everything else back on after a little while.

S2: The problem is, is that when they turned on a lot of those circuits that are critical, they were just out. They didn’t have anything else to do. They they didn’t have any more power to share. And so they’ve not been able to roll those blackouts like like they’re supposed to. And so I think that’s really hard for someone to understand. Whenever you’ve got young kids and it’s getting into the 50s in your house and what do you what do you do if you don’t have anywhere to go? I mean, it’s terrible, but I guess on some level, you know, it’s I guess it’s worse if the whole state’s dark.

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S1: Looking at some of the things that have happened, this seems to have hit marginalized communities, for example, particularly hard, I saw a quote from Bob Bullard, sort of the founder of Environmental Justice, saying, the history of our response to disasters is that these communities are hit first and have to suffer the longest. It sounds like what you’re saying is critical places get their power and then. Everybody else, often the people who can least afford it. Take their lumps.

S2: Yeah, I mean it, yeah, I mean, I haven’t seen the maps drilled down, like to the neighborhood level just yet, but to the extent that marginalized communities are located in areas that don’t have what we call critical infrastructure, yes, they would be the ones that have lost power the most. Hmm.

S1: If you’re a customer and you’re experiencing this, what do you know, like what’s your awareness of what’s happening?

S2: So, I mean, I think that’s going to be one of the the the criticisms that will come out of this is like as soon as they knew that rolling blackouts were not going to roll, they should have done a better job at telling people like, hey, we told you that these were going to be rolling blackouts, but we’re not going to be able to do what you have to do

S1: because, yeah, if you’re sitting in your house and you think, you know what, I can snuggle my baby for an hour, that’s one thing, but not three days.

S2: Yeah, enough heads up would have been like, OK, now I can make plans to try to find someone who does have power, maybe who’s on one of these critical circuits, who lives near a hospital or something like that, that maybe I can make plans to try to stay in their guestroom or on their couch or something like that, at least to have the heat.

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S1: When we come back, how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I think from outside of Texas looking in, people have a lot of questions about what’s happening and how it went so wrong. Yeah, one of those questions is about renewables. I’ve seen people blaming wind power and renewables saying because turbines froze. That’s the problem. That was Tucker Carlson, The Wall Street Journal editorial page. What do you say to that?

S2: Yes, wind has underperformed, but it’s it’s too simplistic of a narrative to blame one particular thing for kind of what has gone wrong. Yes, wind is underperformed, gas has underperformed, coal’s underperformed, nuclear even tripped offline. The whole thing is not doing what we would like it to do right now.

S1: I’ve also heard this criticism that, well, wait a minute, lots of places can provide power in the cold. Minnesota does it. Norway does it. You know sort of what? Texas can suck it up. How does that land for you?

S2: Oh, absolutely. But Norway would sing a different tune if it was 105 degrees outside. You know, we’re built for a different set of design conditions like could we have installed all of the types of wind turbines that they install in Minnesota that would have been able to ride through this? Of course, we could have put the blade warming packages on them to to do that, to deal with the icing issues that cost more money. And this would have been the only time in the lifetime, in the 30 year history of wind that we probably would have really ever used them. Could we have done that with our gas wells? Of course they do it in North Dakota. They do it in Pennsylvania. That cost more money. And the chances of this happening were so Maynooth that they decided it wasn’t it wasn’t worth doing it.

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S1: You had a long, very thoughtful series of tweets, and one of them was the question, when will this end? And I notice that your answer says we probably won’t get all power back until the weather warms enough to reduce the massive amount of heating demand that we’ve been talking about. Yeah, it seems to me like the human and economic consequences of that amount of time could be massive. Are you worried?

S2: I mean, they will be. Yeah. I mean, I’ve already seen reports of deaths attributed to, you know, the cold, the infrastructure losses. I know in my hometown in Nacogdoches, Texas, which is a small town in east Texas, like their water treatment plant, has been taken offline because of the power cut offs and surging issues. And that’s going to cost a lot of money. Individual homes and businesses, apartment complexes, all of these things are going to have to fix water leaks. I there’s all kinds of things like that. And the costs are going to be huge. I mean, we’re talking on the scale of a Cat five hurricane hitting our coast is like Hurricane Harvey that hit like those are the numbers people are starting to throw around. And so that’s you know, I hope that this spurs us to take a harder look at are we going to have more weather like this? Is climate variability kicking up a notch so much that we have to be ready for more extremes? Because if it is and we don’t want to have the result be what’s right now, like we’re going to have to spend money.

S1: What we have right now, not just in Texas but around the country, is aging fast and probably not able to withstand the kind of extreme weather that’s happening more often.

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S2: A lot of the infrastructure we have is just old to begin with. Like we built out a lot of our infrastructure. You know, after World War two and into the 60s and 70s, we had a boom of infrastructure build out as we electrified. Air conditioning was becoming a thing. People were refrigerating things like we built a lot of stuff and it’s more fun to cut a ribbon around a new bridge or a new transmission line than it is to say we just did our 10 year maintenance on this dam or something like that. No one cares. You don’t get any points for that kind of thing. The National Society of Civil Engineers, they grade our energy infrastructure a D. It’s barely passing. They call for trillions in investment just to keep things the way they are. If we want to transition to anything else, that’s going to be kind of, you know, could be on top of that. So, like, it’s a big conversation and it’s a hard conversation, but it’s like it’s it’s one that I would I would hope we would have.

S1: Do you see in your analysis and conversations the appetite for spending money on this?

S2: No, I mean, I don’t think so. Like, we haven’t had to make those massive investments in decades, and so we just kind of I think we just kind of lost the idea that those are required. I would think they would have some kind of, you know, bipartisan support because it’s jobs and infrastructure and everyone’s supposed to like that kind of thing. But like we fight over how do we want to do it? Do we want to do it private? Do we want to do it public? And then we end up a lot of times just putting bandaids over things and not actually like, you know, fixing, you know, the root issue or replacing what needs to be replaced.

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S1: I covered Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and spent some time looking at their particularly outdated and vulnerable grid, when I think about an event like that or an event like this or the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005. I feel like we have national conversations about vulnerabilities in the wake of disasters. What needs to happen when we aren’t simultaneously trying to get people fed and housed and in some kind of stable shelter,

S2: we have to do the hard work of doing like the systems level analysis that looks at how do these massive infrastructures interact with each other, our lives and everything that supply us energy and transportation and food and water and all. They’re also interrelated that like we have to look at them all because it changes in one will will will change another. And so we need to have those hard conversations and do the hard work to figure out what do we need to invest in.

S1: Josh Rhodes, thank you very much.

S2: Thanks for having me.

S1: Josh Rhodes is a research associate at the Webber Energy Group at UT Austin. All right. That is it for us today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate podcasts TBD. It’s also part of the larger What Next family. And it’s part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I want to recommend you go back and listen to Monday’s episode of What Next? It’s about how to change a vaccine. Skeptics mind when that skeptic is your dad. All right. Have a good weekend. Mary Harris will be back on Monday. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.