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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Explained: Why did the winter storm cause widespread blackouts in energy-rich Texas?

Texas winter storm: Over a dozen deaths have been attributed to the unprecedented winter storm ‘Uri’ so far in the state, with local authorities warning that frigid conditions are likely to continue for another few days.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: February 24, 2021 12:59:09 pm
Texas storm, Texas US powercut, winter storm Texas, US Texas Weath, Express ExplainedSnowplows works to clear the road during a winter storm Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP)

As Texas finds itself in the midst of a rare and brutal blast of winter weather, with temperatures plunging below freezing levels, over 4.3 million people across the US state have been left without power after high demand for electricity caused the power grid to repeatedly fail.

Over a dozen deaths have been attributed to the unprecedented winter storm ‘Uri’ so far in the state, with local authorities warning that frigid conditions are likely to continue for another few days. On Sunday, President Joe Biden declared an emergency in Texas, ordering federal assistance to aid response efforts.

The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the operator of the state’s power grid, faced sharp criticism from state leadership, including Governor Greg Abbott, who said that the body “has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.”

Meanwhile, the power grid operators have said that they have no way of predicting when the power outages will end.

“We needed to step in and make sure that we were not going to end up with Texas in a blackout, which could keep folks without power — not just some people without power but everyone in our region without power — for much, much longer than we believe this event is going to last, as long and as difficult as this event is right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness told Dallas Morning News.

The sudden cold snap also sent natural gas and power prices soaring to record levels in some parts of the country, Bloomberg reported.

City of Richardson worker Kaleb Love breaks ice on a frozen fountain Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Richardson, Texas. (AP)

What has caused the power outage in the state?

With Texas reporting some of its lowest temperatures in the last three decades, the state has recorded a sudden spike in electricity demand. Meanwhile, its primary sources of energy — natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind and solar — have been afflicted by the cold and ice. As a result, power grid operators have been forced to conduct rolling blackouts in different parts of the state.

ERCOT issued a level-three emergency alert, urging its customers to dial down their electricity use until the situation was brought under control. “Traffic lights and other infrastructure may be temporarily without power,” it added in a tweet.

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Texas is the only US state which operates its own internal power grid. This is managed by the nonprofit ERCOT and provides at least 90 per cent of the state’s electricity. When temperatures dropped significantly on Sunday (even plunging to -18 degrees in some parts of the state) and residents increasingly turned to their thermostats for warmth, the power grid was inundated with a record demand, at over 69,000 megawatts. This is more than 3,200 MW higher than the previous winter peak set in January 2018.

Meanwhile, the state’s main sources of power were also knocked offline as gas lines were blocked with ice, wind turbines froze and coal piles and thermal energy generators too began falling off the grid. Unable to meet the heightened demand, ERCOT was forced to introduce rotating power outages, which were supposed to last about 10-45 minutes. However, by Tuesday, millions remained without power in the state.

While weather-related power blackouts are not unusual, experts have flagged the electricity crisis in Texas because of how widespread it is and also given the state’s wealth of energy resources. In fact, Texas is the largest oil, natural gas, and wind energy producer in the US, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The crisis has arisen not because of a lack of power sources, but rather due to ill-equipped energy infrastructure, some experts have pointed out.

In the meantime, electricity prices spiked more than 10,000 per cent when the storm hit the state earlier this week, CNN reported. Real-time wholesale market prices on the power grid were more than $9,000 per megawatt hour by Monday morning, as compared to pre-storm prices of less than $50 per megawatt hour, Reuters reported.

What was the outcome of the state-wide blackouts?

Following the widespread blackouts in the state, several Covid-19 inoculation centres were forced to shut down, delaying the rollout of vaccines. With freezers losing power and generators failing, some health workers in places like Houston had to frantically administer remaining vaccine doses before they were spoiled.

Before the arrival of the Uri winter storm, Texas was on track to vaccinate 1 million people per week and was on the verge of vaccinating over a million Texans by the end of the week, according to DSHS numbers.

National Guard troops have been deployed across the state to check in on families during the ongoing winter storm. Several deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning have been reported in parts of the United States, as some people resorted to staying in their cars to keep warm. Nearly 120 crashes, including a 10-car pileup on I-45, were reported Sunday, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pea tweeted.

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