Texas' Power Outage
Last week was defined by historic weather conditions across Texas including record low temperatures and snowfall. Despite prior warning of the severity of these conditions, the Texas government was caught off-guard and unprepared; because of this millions of Texas residents were without power and water for days leading to fatal consequences in some cases. Why was a state known for its robust economy and opportunity not able to assist its citizen’s basic needs?
Staying true to its proud ideology, Texas’ power grid is secluded from the rest of The United States. Historically, Texas pushes back against federal government regulations, and the 1935 Federal Power Act, where the federal government regulated power lines that cross state lines was no different. Texas rejected the opportunity to share an electric network with its neighboring states because of its already established grid, the Texas Interconnected System. Created in 1970, 5 years after a major power outage in the NorthEast, ERCOT’s purpose was ensuring a similar event would not happen again. ERCOT now manages the flow of electric power for over 26 million Texas residents or 90% of the state’s electric load, and reports to the Texas Public Utility Commission.
In 2002, Texas decided to deregulate its own energy market allowing providers to compete for their own pie of Texan power. As competition always entails, providers had to keep their prices low to remain competitive. This meant critical infrastructure projects like winterizing generators, power plants, and other equipment were ignored with no thought of the actual consequences even after the 2011 snow storms that left millions of Texans without power. There was no incentive to make costly improvements for what was thought to be rare winter weather.
During the series of snow storms that swept the state, Texas had several inches of snow and record low temperatures that caused an increase of power usage, a happening ERCOT was not prepared for. The freezing temperatures caused sources of energy like natural gas plants to go offline during this surge of demand causing a huge gap between the supply of power and what Texans needed. In an attempt to manage states resources. ERCOT initiated what was meant to be rolling power outages, but in reality citizens were without power for days at a time. Government officials were no help for their residents and even Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, was seen fleeing to Cancun for a vacation while millions were still without power and water.
As a result of last week’s complete failure of electric service, both Harris county and Travis county have launched two separate investigations into what caused the widespread power outages. Harris county will be exploring the decisions made by board members that operate state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission. Travis county will be determining if criminal charges should be faced by anyone surrounding the events. 5 ERCOT board members have also resigned from their positions; it is unclear if the investigations and the resignations are connected.
What must not be forgotten is the underlying problem that led to this disaster and many others past and future: climate change. The 2020 hurricane season was the worst to date, with a record-breaking 30 named storms, getting all the way to Iota. The runner-up for worst hurricane season was 2005 and its flagship storm: Hurricane Katrina. Winter Storm Uri (Most Texans probably didn’t even know winter storms had names) was caused by the weakening of the polar vortex that keeps the Arctic cold in the Arctic as a result of warming temperatures. Might this once in a decade winter weather event for Texas begin happening every 5 years? Every other year? Texas, the nation, and the world must meet the challenge of adapting our behavior and our infrastructure to worsening natural disasters in our climate-changing world.
Texas can easily become a leader of the green energy revolution. This winter storm proved the importance of not only weatherizing your equipment, but also the diversification of energy production. A fact that Governor Greg Abbot forgot is that Texas is the leading producer of wind energy in the nation, with wind accounting for 20% of the state’s energy production, and counting. If Texas were its own nation, it’d be the world’s 5th largest producer of wind energy. Being the large Sunbelt state that it is, it unsurprisingly also has huge solar energy potential. The argument could be made that Texas’s independent grid and unique market approach to the energy market can give it the flexibility needed to lead the way in the renewable energy transition.
ERCOT and energy providers certainly have a duty to uphold and maintain their infrastructure to withstand the temperature, and the Texas Public Utility Commission had a duty to enforce it. What happened was a case of preparedness from these private companies, and a lack of oversight from the Texas Government. Should there be more heavier enforcement with these private companies by the Texas Government? Should Texas conform to Federal regulations, since we’ve already asked for their help to begin with? Can the state diversify its energy production and lead the way to a renewable future? Whatever the future may hold, something needs to be done so a disaster like this won’t happen again.