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Texas Power Grid Is Unique, and That's an Issue Right Now

It's currently overwhelmed, and millions are without power in frigid temperatures
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 16, 2021 2:09 PM CST
Power Grid in Texas Is Overwhelmed
Dan Bryant and his wife, Anna, huddle by the fire with sons Benny, 3, and Sam, 12 weeks, along with their dog Joey, in Garland, Texas.   (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

It's an awful combination: North Texas had its coldest day in 72 years Tuesday—the low was minus 2 degrees—as power shortages left hundreds of thousands in the region without heat, reports the Dallas News. The situation is much the same statewide, as more than 4 million homes and businesses were without power as of Tuesday afternoon, reports the AP. This had people resorting to dangerous, even deadly, alternatives, and it also put the state's power grid in the national spotlight. Coverage:

  • Texas is unlike most states in that it operates its own power grid that serves almost all residents, reports Vox. "The Texas power grid is really an island," says expert Daniel Cohan of Rice University. While it has some links to neighboring states, "those power lines aren’t adequate to draw the power it would need to cope with such a massive shortfall," writes Unair Irfan. The grid is run by the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.
  • Most of the state's power comes from natural gas and wind, explains the Houston Chronicle in a story whose headline is a question on many state residents' minds: "What went wrong with the Texas power grid?" In this case, the explanation for what the newspaper calls the grid's "catastrophic failure" involves a double whammy: The historic storm not only increased demand, it reduced supply because the freezing weather crippled power plants and distribution networks.

  • It doesn't help that wind turbines are freezing, though that's a relatively small part of the problem, writes Brad Plumer at the New York Times. A bigger issue is that the storm exceeded the worst-case scenarios of grid operators when they were looking ahead to winter. They figured the state would need a maximum of 67 gigawatts of electricity in an emergency, but the demand rose to 69 gigawatts on Sunday and grew worse from there.
  • "No one’s model of the power system envisioned that all 254 Texas counties would come under a winter storm warning at the same time," Joshua Rhodes of University of Texas, Austin, tells the Times. "It's putting major strain on both the electricity grid and the gas grid that feeds both electricity and heat." (Plumer's take is that climate change will lead to more and more of these types of extreme weather situations.)
  • Another factor is that this is the time of year when the state shuts down some plants for maintenance, in anticipation of summer air-conditioning demands.
  • All of this has led to the worst energy crisis in Texas in a decade, per the Chronicle. ERCOT is using rolling blackouts to gradually increase the number of customers back on the grid. But in an interview with WFAA, CEO Bill Magness could not say with certainty when everybody would have power. He notes that his own house is affected, so he, his wife, and his eighth-grader can relate. "It started Sunday night, and so that frustration of having to live without power when you're in the coldest time of the year, we absolutely understand the difficulty of that."
(More Texas stories.)

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