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What is Happening in Texas?

Pockets of Texas entered their Third Straight Day of Widespread Power Outages amid an extended winter storm.

An unusual Arctic blast spread across Texas on Monday and Tuesday from the tip of the Panhandle all the way to the Rio Grande Valley. Residents of large swaths of the state experienced two straight days of single-digit temperatures.

The widespread cold weather led to record-breaking demand for electricity. On Sunday night into Monday morning, frigid conditions hobbled dozens of power plants. This led the state’s grid operator to declare its most serious state of emergency at about 1:30 a.m. Monday.

The grid operator has faced twin problems: frozen power plants and not enough natural gas to run all needed power plants.  

Texas operates its own power grid, making it the only one that isn’t under federal jurisdiction. Texas likes it that way and has taken sometimes dramatic steps to ensure its grid is overseen in Austin, not Washington.

Natural-gas-fired power plants generated 40% of Texas’s electricity in 2020, according to Ercot, the largest single source. Wind turbines were second at 23%, followed by coal at 18% and nuclear at 11%.

Deep Freeze Persists

Unfortunately, Texas Power Outages to Drag Into Third Day as Deep Freeze Persists.

The power crisis came as a far-reaching winter storm brought snow, ice and record low temperatures to swaths of the U.S., with dangerously cold wind chills from Arctic air expected to linger over the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley through midweek, the National Weather Service said.

Anger at the state’s power-grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or Ercot, flashed throughout the state on Tuesday, with many local officials criticizing the lack of information on when the power might come back.

The crisis began in the early hours of Monday when a series of power plants shut down in rapid succession, prompting Ercot to initially call for rolling blackouts and then institute longer, widespread outages.

A number of wind turbines in West Texas shut down because of excessive icing, but the loss of sizable amounts of generation from natural gas, coal and nuclear plants pushed the grid into an emergency. Unlike similar power generators in other parts of the U.S., many Texas wind farms and power plants aren’t insulated and designed to perform in extremely cold temperatures, which rarely occur in much of the state.

Troy Fraser, a retired Texas state senator who chaired a committee that had oversight of the Texas grid for 16 years until 2017, said it was possible to create a more resilient electricity system, but it would be costly.

What are people willing to pay for? Do they want their electric bills to double to build in adequate reserves?” he asked. “I’m sitting here without power in my house and it’s an inconvenience, and it’s an inconvenience I will live with rather than have my power prices double.”

Has Happened Before

Texas power outages have happened twice before but on a much smaller scale in both intensity and duration.

  • In 2011, a February cold spell led to a spike in demand for natural gas and problems with the gas gathering-and-pipeline systems. The issues lasted about six hours and the grid had to cut off four gigawatts of electricity to customers.
  • In 2014, another cold snap in January forced nearly 10 gigawatts of power generation offline because of freezing conditions.
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“A decade ago, almost to the day, we had a similar event, so we had 10 years to implement solutions to prevent this from happening and it looks like we didn’t do it,” said Michael Webber, a mechanical-engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin and chief science officer for French power company Engie SA . “The question is, will we learn the lesson this time?

What are People Willing to Pay For?

That's the key question, not alleged lessons. The Texas grid is optimized for summer heat capacity.

Ask people today what they are willing to pay for and you will get a different answer than you would have two weeks ago.

And you would get a still different answer in July.

Ultimate Irony

The ultimate irony in this Texas escapade is everyone expecting Texas to prepare for a massive cold wave in the midst of escalating panic over global warming.

Wait a second. I forgot that CO2 causes record cold, record heat, floods, drought, fleas, ticks, baldness, and rodent attacks.

Apologies offered for anything I missed.