The Night the Lights Went Out in Texas

On the evening of Sunday, Feb. 14, as the sun went down over the great state of Texas, so did outside temperatures. As the temperatures continued to fall that evening and on into the early morning hours of Monday, Feb. 15, at around 2 a.m., electric generators in Texas began to fall victim to the low temperatures, and lights began to go out across the state, and the region.

The cause of these abnormally low temperatures was an unusually strong winter storm that brought with it an arctic blast of frigid air from Canada, blanketing the area for days. Texas was not the only state to fall prey to this unusually cold air mass. Other Mid-Western states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, and Arkansas experienced similar negative effects of this cold air mass.

It appears that in the early hours of Feb. 15 the first electric generators to fail were those relying on renewables. It was after sunset, so all solar had already gone offline. Wind turbines, which were not maintained to withstand sub-freezing temperatures, began to freeze up. At the time, wind was providing 42% of all electricity to Texas, but quickly dropped to only 8%. According to news reports, that volume eventually dropped to 2%. This sharp drop-off required coal, natural gas and nuclear generators to quickly fill the void left by the failed wind turbines. But at the time, with temperatures continuing to fall, and demand for electricity and natural gas rapidly increasing, other generating sources couldn’t keep up with the needed load to balance supply and demand.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is the grid operator in the Lone Star state and is responsible for managing supply to meet demand, and setting wholesale prices. The Texas grid is an independent, standalone system that does not enjoy some of the same interconnections and shared power resources with other grids across the country. And as such, it couldn’t draw power from the neighboring grid networks.  Since Texas is an energy island of sorts, it also does not fall under the control of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and is not subject to other FERC protocols and federal oversight. The system was created several years ago in an effort to keep electric rates low, a goal that has been largely successful until now.

Instead of trying to micro-manage the cost and reliability of generator operations, ERCOT depends upon the incentive of higher rates during times of power shortages. As the philosophy goes, if generators don’t build reliability into their operations and trip offline during high-demand events, they will lose the windfall opportunity to charge markedly higher electric rates. But it didn’t work this time.

Early on the morning of Feb. 15, with wind generators going offline, and unable to supply sufficient power to meet demand, ERCOT began to implement rolling blackouts to prevent the system from melting down. Rolling blackouts ultimately were not sufficient to reduce demand, so ERCOT began shutting down power to large portions of the state. ERCOT tried to maintain power to essential infrastructure like hospitals and other essential infrastructure, but with limited success.  The initial curtailment of power affected some two million homes and businesses, and continued for days.

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial, “The Political Making of a Texas Power Outage.”  In that piece, the editorial board made the point that state and federal energy policies have weakened electric grids across the country and were responsible for the power failures in Texas and surrounding states.  They quoted the failure of electric wind turbines, including the precipitous drop from 42% to 8% in a short time in Texas. The renewable industry took issue with the Journal’s facts, including penning an article in PolitiFacts headlined, “Natural Gas, Not Wind Turbines – Are to Blame.” The environmentalist argument was that the Journal was mistaken in its description of the role of wind turbines. The critics said ERCOT had reported that it counts on wind to meet only 10% of its winter capacity. This forced The Wall Street Journal to defend its numbers in another editorial, “Texas Spins into the Wind.” The WSJ explained that while wind may account for only 10% of “total potential generating capacity,” a safety margin is built into the system that almost never runs at “total capacity.” At the time the lights went out, wind did in fact account for 42% of the grid load at the time, according to EIA data.

It was a perfect storm: rapidly falling temperatures, rapidly increasing electric and natural gas demand, generating facilities failing due to the unusually low temperatures and tripping offline.

Texas was not the only state to experience widespread blackouts, but Texas was the epicenter and had vastly higher per capita power failures.

To be fair, other electric generators had their challenges with the cold: production at some natural gas wells in the state had been shuttered due to low demand caused by the pandemic and resultant low market prices; some wells froze in the cold and stopped producing; electric generators competed for gas for space heating in an environment of limited supply and pipeline constraints also caused by low temperatures. Some coal generators had to contend with piles of coal stored outdoors that froze. And coal and nuclear had to contend with frozen pipes that reduced output in some cases, but continued to produce at lower outputs.  According to their editorial, quoting EIA data: “Gas-fired plants produced 43,800 MW of power Sunday night and coal chipped in 10,800 MW – about two to three times what they usually generate at their peak on any given winter day – after wind power had largely vanished. In other words, gas and coal plants held up in the frosty conditions far better than wind turbines did.”

As one might expect, due to short supply, electric and natural gas prices spiked following the beginning of the blackouts. The ERCOT model rewards generators who maintain their infrastructure and can continue to produce power during extreme conditions. The grid operator allows those generators to reap the benefits of higher rates as a reward for reliability and vice versa. But in a strange twist, on Feb. 15 the Texas Public Utilities Commission stepped in during the blackouts and overrode the ERCOT competitive market model and raised the wholesale power cost to $9,000 per MW, the statutory cap in Texas. The goal was to entice generators to produce more power. But the effort failed because all generators capable of producing power were already producing at capacity.

The price of natural gas, gasoline, bottled water and other commodities also spiked during the crisis. Even the cost of a warm hotel room with running water had skyrocketed. The Texas Attorney General’s Office is investigating claims of gouging.  Other neighboring states are seeing similar price spikes.

Water treatment plants need electricity to purify water. Many lost power prompting officials to issue “boil water” orders. Electricity is also needed for pumps to maintain system water pressure and without electricity, many residents lost access to water all together. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, pipes in homes and streets froze and burst. At the peak of the crisis, more than 14 million people in Texas were without safe drinking water.

At the time of this writing, authorities are reporting a death toll of 80 or more in Texas alone. The authorities are quick to point out that attributing the cause of death to an event such as this is difficult, yet they say the number is likely to rise. In addition to those who died of hypothermia, asphyxiations were also reported as people tried different ways to keep warm. Auto accidents claimed a number of lives, as did other isolated cases like that of an elderly man who slipped on the ice and hit his head, and a man in western Texas who was unable to get medical treatment due to the lack of clean water.

While one can claim this was a one-of-a-kind perfect storm that had devastating consequences for a wide swath of Texas, and more broadly the Midwest, some are raising concerns about electric grid reliability, and the likelihood of future blackouts if we don’t heed the warning signs. As many have said in commenting on this event, renewables are fine, but if you want to ensure grid reliability, fossil fuels are essential for backup.

Another Wall Street Journal editorial on Feb. 20 said it well: “With Texas shivering as power outages continued for a fourth day, the Biden Administration announced it is deploying diesel generators to the state. Yes, good ol’ dirty diesel fuel is coming to the rescue again.” — Thomas J. Tubman

Thomas J. Tubman is executive director of the American Energy Coalition.

Editor’s Note: The chronology and details in this account are based on published news reports.

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