‘A Complete Bungle’: Texas’s Energy Pride Goes Out With Cold

AUSTIN, Texas -
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon stands on his kitchen counter to warm his feet over his gas stove in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Anger over Texas’s power grid failing in the face of a record winter freeze continued to mount Wednesday as millions of residents in the energy capital of the U.S. remained shivering with no assurances that their electricity and heat — out since Monday in many homes — would return soon or stay on once it finally does.

In all, nearly three million customers in Texas still had no power Wednesday after historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge in demand for electricity to warm up homes unaccustomed to such extreme lows, buckling the state’s power grid and causing widespread blackouts. A large swath of Texas was under yet another winter storm warning Wednesday.

Making matters worse: Expectations that the outages would be a shared sacrifice by the state’s 30 million residents quickly gave way to a cold reality, as pockets in some of America’s largest cities, including San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, were left to shoulder the lasting brunt of a catastrophic power failure, and in subfreezing conditions that Texas’s grid operators had known was coming.

The breakdown sparked growing outrage and demands for answers over how Texas — whose Republican leaders as recently as last year taunted California over the Democratic-led state’s rolling blackouts — failed such a massive test of a major point of state pride: energy independence. And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighborhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.

The toll of the outages was causing increasing worry. Harris County emergency officials reported “several carbon monoxide deaths” in or around Houston and reminded people not to operate cars or gasoline-powered generators indoors. Authorities said three young children and their grandmother, who were believed to be trying to keep warm, also died in a suburban Houston house fire early Tuesday.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation Tuesday of the grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. His indignation struck a much different tone than just a day earlier, when he told Texans that ERCOT was prioritizing residential customers and that power was getting restored to hundreds of thousands of homes.

But hours after those assurances, the number of outages in Texas only rose, at one point exceeding four million customers.

ERCOT said Wednesday morning that electricity had been restored to 600,000 homes and businesses by Tuesday night but that 2.7 million households were still without power.

The grid began preparing for the storm a week ahead of time, but it reached a breaking point early Monday as conditions worsened and knocked power plants offline, ERCOT President Bill Magness said.

Some wind turbine generators were iced, but nearly twice as much power was wiped out at natural gas and coal plants. Forcing controlled outages was the only way to avert an even more dire blackout in Texas, Magness said.

A viral photo of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine was shared with claims it showed a “chemical” solution being applied to one of the massive wind generators in Texas. The only problem? The photo was taken in Sweden years ago, not in the U.S. in 2021. The helicopter sprayed hot water onto the wind turbine, not chemicals.

“It’s really natural gas and coal and nuclear that are providing the bulk of the electricity and that’s the bulk of the cause of the blackouts,” Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, told The Associated Press.

ERCOT said Tuesday that of the 45,000 total megawatts of power that were offline statewide, about 30,000 consisted of thermal sources — gas, coal and nuclear plants — and 16,000 came from renewable sources.
On top of that, while Texas has ramped up wind energy in recent years, the state still relies on wind power for only about 25% of its total electricity, according to ERCOT data.

On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Texas had requested 60 generators and that hospitals and nursing homes would get priority. Thirty-five warming shelters were opened to accommodate more than 1,000 people around the state, FEMA said during a briefing. But even they weren’t spared from the outages, as Houston was forced to close two on Monday because of a loss in power.

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the problem was a lack of weatherized power plants and a statewide energy market that doesn’t incentivize companies to generate electricity when demand is low. In Texas, demand peaks in August, at the height of the state’s sweltering summers.

He rejected that the storm went beyond what ERCOT could have anticipated.

“That’s nonsense. It’s not acceptable,” Hirs said. “Every eight to 10 years we have really bad winters. This is not a surprise.”

Reporting by the Associated Press.