ERCOT Failures Leave Texas in a Deadly Deep Freeze, Millions Without Electricity, Heat, or Water
Millions in Texas were left without the basics of modern civilization this week – electricity, heat, and water – after dangerously frigid temperatures proved too much for the state’s fragile, unregulated power grid.
And while some have tried to blame wind power and other renewable energy sources, it’s become increasingly clear that the failure to prepare the grid for winter weather was directly responsible for this week’s catastrophe.
ERCOT Conducted Rolling Blackouts to Prevent Complete Grid Collapse
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, is tasked with maintaining the state’s power grid. That grid all but collapsed as a cold snap unleashed record low temperatures, snow, and ice across Texas. Close to 4 million people were forced to go without electricity or heat in a state that produces the most power in the nation was unable to keep the lights on.
So how did it happen?
The winter storm that engulfed Texas over the weekend caused power generators, natural gas pipelines, and, yes, wind turbines to freeze, crippling the state’s ability to produce electricity. ERCOT was forced to order rolling blackouts to avoid a complete collapse.
The lack of electricity, frozen and broken water lines, and people dripping faucets to prevent their own pipes from freezing also disrupted the state’s water supply. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 590 public water systems in 141 Texas counties reported service disruptions, affecting 11.8 million people as of late Wednesday afternoon. Millions have been warned to boil water before drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth, and making ice.
“Water pressure is very low. Please do not run water to keep pipes from bursting,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Wednesday morning. “Turn off water if pipes have burst. Please contact us if you don’t know how to turn off water. Be conservative on water usage today. It is needed for hospitals and fires.”
Massive Winter Storm Leaves Dozens of Dead in Texas, Across U.S.
Power had returned to all but 200,000 Texas households as of this morning. But while temperatures are expected to rise into the 50s and 60s during the daylight hours over the weekend, the nights could still see freezing lows. Sporadic outages are still possible across the state, and the water issues are likely to linger for days.
According to data compiled by The Washington Post, two major winter storms that affected much of the United States this week have killed at least 47 people since Sunday. More than half of those deaths – 30 – occurred in Texas, where the lack of heat exposed residents to dangerously low temperatures over an extended period of time. Most victims’ identities haven’t been disclosed, and authorities have confirmed the ages of fewer than half. Of those, 18 were 50 or older, and five were 85 and older.
Many of the Texas fatalities resulted from hypothermia, including a man found lifeless in a parking lot north of Houston. Another person described as a “transient” who had been sleeping outside was found dead in Abilene. Hypothermia is also suspected in the death of an 11-year-old Conroe boy whose lifeless body was discovered on Tuesday inside his family’s unheated trailer.
The deadly cold has caused many Texans to take drastic — and dangerous — measures in a bid to stay warm, including using gas grills indoors or running cars inside a closed garage. At least five people have died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Hundreds of others have been treated for exposure to the invisible, toxic gas.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a news conference this week. “This carbon monoxide poisoning is a disaster within a disaster.”
Texans Only Beginning to Assess Blackout-Related Property Damage
Across the state, residents of Texas are only beginning to assess the property damage wrought by this week’s catastrophic blackout.
Many homes experienced flooding after water pipes burst. In San Antonio, first responders called to the scene of an apartment building fire could only watch the structure burn due to a lack of water.
According to The New York Times, state officials are preparing for many requests for aid. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas said he would ease restrictions for out-of-state plumbers and those with expired licenses.
Residents have been urged to do whatever they can to prevent leaks, including shutting off their homes’ main water line.
How ERCOT Failed to Protect the Texas Power Grid
In the early days of the crises, Governor Abbott and other friends of the fossil fuel industry tried to blame the Texas blackout on frozen windmills and other alternative power sources. But while some turbines did freeze, critics were quick to point out that many northern states also rely on wind turbines to help power their electric grids. Those states routinely see frigid weather during the winter months, yet their utilities somehow manage to avoid such widespread outages.
The fact is, this week’s grid failure mainly resulted from the shutdown of thermal power plants, primarily those in Texas that rely on natural gas. And while exceptionally cold temperatures are rare for the Lone Star State, this isn’t the first time the Texas electrical grid has experienced widespread failure. A severe cold spell that hit the state in 2011 resulted in similar power disruptions.
So, what’s the problem?
For one thing, Texas is the only state in the nation with an independent power grid. Because the grid is almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the country, the state cannot bring in additional power during a crisis.
The surge in demand brought on by the cold weather also caused wholesale energy prices to spike in Texas. According to the Washington Post, that might have caused ERCOT’s computers to order companies to “shed load” — cut off customers — rather than deal with the sharp rise in costs.
But most importantly, ERCOT officials knew the state’s power grid was vulnerable to winter weather. Nevertheless, they left it to individual power companies to decide whether or not to winterize their infrastructure. Without a mandate, the vast majority chose to forego the costly upgrades.
“Clearly, we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits,” Tom Smith, former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group that pushed for changes after the 2011 winter emergency, told the Texas Tribune.
“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies’] rush for profits.
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Our Undefeated Texas Personal Injury Lawyers are investigating ERCOT’s failure to protect the state power grid and will post updates as new information becomes available.
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