Science

Why are millions out of power in Texas?

EST. READING TIME ~ 4 MINUTES

Questions answered in this post (4-min read):

  1. What is the extent of damage of these winter storms in Texas?
  2. Why are extended power outages and blackouts happening in Texas?
  3. The debate for change and regulation of the Texas Interconnection (Texas’ power grid)

1: What is the extent of damage of these winter storms in Texas?

The Winter Storm, in Photos: How Texans Are Surviving the Historic Freeze –  Texas Monthly
Rare snow covers Houston, Texas on February 15th, 2021. (Houston Chronicle/AP)

During the month of February, two severe winter storms have ravaged the United States, but unexpectedly, these storms have had their most violent effects on the usually warm and arid state of Texas. These winter storms have been fueled by an unlikely jet stream that has developed in the southern part of the United States. This extreme gust of current has carried very cold air and precipitation throughout the United States, especially in states like Texas. In addition, the winter storm has created a variety of problems including food shortages, water shortages, and infrastructure damages. These problems are very common in many states during large winter storms. However, Texas is experiencing a very unique problem: power outages. It is true that many states often receive power outages during harsh winter storms, nevertheless, the extent of the Texas power outage crisis is much larger than most before. 

The winter storms have dealt harsh damages on Texas power stations, which has left at least 3.3 million Texas citizens without power for several days. At the peak of the power outage crisis, around 48.6 % of power generating units were shut down. In addition, this extended power outage has left citizens in search of heat and air conditioning. Because of this, over 500 Texas citizens have had cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as of February 18, 2021, and thousands are falling ill and dying to extremely cold temperatures. Without heat, water, and in some cases food, Texas citizens are surviving through disastrous conditions, but a worse reality was very close to happening. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) announced that Texas was “4 minutes and 37 seconds” from a total blackout that could have lasted for months. A blackout of this magnitude could have killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions without food, water, and heat. A blackout of this magnitude would have been one of history’s worst modern-era crises, and with societies and communities running solely on technology and electricity, the negative effects of a blackout of that size would be endless. Fortunately, Texas was able to fix its power grid in time, but one question must be answered. If the winter storm is affecting most US states, then why is only Texas in this power outage crisis?

2: Why are extended power outages and blackouts happening in Texas?

Poudre Valley REA, Inc
The United States power grid system. All of the mainland United States is under a national interconnection other than Texas. (Poudre Valley/REA)

This can be dated all the way back to 1965 when the worst power outage in US history struck the Northeast United States. However, Texas wasn’t affected physically, this power outage created the need for a change of the United States’ power grid system. The federal government wanted to increase interstate electricity reliability, but this went against the Texas government’s commitment to deregulate utilities including electricity. To combat this, Texas created ERCOT in 1970, which would facilitate Texas’s sole power grid. Later, under then-governer George W. Bush, ERCOT grew to oversee all power flows and exchanges between utility companies and became the first independent power grid operator in 1996. This helped lower electricity costs for Texas citizens. While the rest of the mainland states in the US were under two interconnected power grids, the Eastern and Western Interconnection, Texas had its own solo power grid. If states that operate their electrical power in the Eastern or Western Interconnection are having power outages and electricity shortages, other states are able to easily send them the power to help out. However, since Texas has its own power grid it isn’t able to receive electricity from any other states or territories during a power crisis. Although a snowstorm of this magnitude is rare in a southern state like Texas, their independent power grid leaves them vulnerable to having extended power outages and blackouts until operators are able to safely fix the damages. Surprisingly, a power outage back in 1965 that didn’t affect Texas is one of the largest reasons they are in this crisis today.

3: The debate for change and regulation of the Texas Interconnection (Texas’ power grid)

This isn’t the first large blackout that Texas has had to deal with and it won’t be the last unless there is a push for Texas to join the power grid systems of the rest of the United States. Congressional Democrats, such as US representative of San Antonio Joaquin Castro wants the Texas government to “explore” joining with the rest of the United States power grid. Texas Republicans don’t want anything to do with nationalizing Texas’s power grid because if they have their own power grid they are not subject to federal regulations. This allows for Texas utility companies to make a lot more profit and for Texas citizens to have cheaper electricity costs. Nevertheless, extended blackouts and power outages similar to the one that is happening right now will keep happening if Texas stays independent in electrical power. Texas must choose whether they want to take the chance of being extremely vulnerable to an extended blackout while staying deregulated or if they want to join the US electrical interconnection, but be subject to US federal regulations.

TL;DR

  • The national winter storm has unexpectedly had its most violent effects on the state of Texas.
  • Countywide blackouts and power outages are leaving millions of citizens without food, water, and heat.
  • Texas is having power outages and electrical problems because they operate in a solo power grid instead of the national power grid. Other states and territories are unable to send electrical power to Texas because they are under different power grids.
  • Texas is under its own power grid because it allows for them to not be under federal regulations and helps Texas utility companies gain much more profit.
  • Texas now faces a debate whether they should join the US interconnection (US power grid) or stay independent from the national electrical system.

Citations:

https://www.texasmonthly.com/news/winter-snow-storm-gallery-2021/

https://pvrea.coop/how-power-grid-works

https://www.cbs7.com/2021/02/26/texas-was-4-minutes-and-37-seconds-away-from-a-statewide-blackout-during-winter-storm/

https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/19/texas-winter-storm-power-outage-ercot/

https://www.aeptexas.com/outages/details.aspx?stormName=Texas+Winter+Storm+-+February+2021

https://abcnews.go.com/US/texas-emergency-proclamation-approved-dangerous-winter-storms-power/story?id=75896100

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: