Winter Storm Power Outages Lead to Calls for Investigation

Residents walk through snow, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in San Antonio. A winter storm dropping snow and ice also sent temperatures plunging across the southern Plains, prompting a power emergency in Texas.

Residents walk through snow, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in San Antonio. A winter storm dropping snow and ice also sent temperatures plunging across the southern Plains, prompting a power emergency in Texas. AP Photo/Eric Gay

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

At least 4 million people were without power in Texas after freezing temperatures and surging electricity use overwhelmed the state’s grid.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation Tuesday of the state’s electrical grid manager after more than 4 million residents went without power for a second day amid a historic winter storm that overwhelmed the state’s power grid.

Power stations that generate electricity were knocked offline by the cold weather, which dipped into the single digits, while demand for electricity surged as Texans unaccustomed to the freezing temperatures tried to warm their homes. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of electricity to more than 26 million customers, began rolling outages overnight Monday in a bid to restore power.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said, announcing that reform of the nonprofit would be included as an emergency item this legislative session. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”

To keep demand from overloading the system, ERCOT has asked local utilities to reduce the amount of power they use but officials were unable Tuesday to provide any assurances when service would be fully restored.

“We are trying to get people’s power back on as quickly as possible,” Bill Magness, ERCOT’s president, told KXAN-TV. “But in order to do that, we need to be able to safely manage the balance of supply and demand on the grid.”

In Austin, the local utility shut off power to some of its biggest industrial users and told customers to be prepared not to have power through Tuesday night and possibly longer. The utility, Austin Energy, said it could not rotate outages through different parts of the city without affecting circuits that provide power to critical infrastructure like hospitals.

The record-breaking winter storm brought frigid temperatures to parts of the United States that rarely see such cold and at least 23 people have died in storm-related incidents.

Garland, Texas resident Jack Catalano said his power went off around 11:30 a.m. Monday, leaving him and his wife to double up on layers and eventually cook by flashlight on their gas stove. It wasn’t until 2 a.m. Tuesday—at which point the temperature in his house had reached 46 degrees—that the power came back on.

“I’m glad we didn’t have a significantly longer outage than we did,” Catalano said.

Given the rolling blackouts and another impending storm, Catalano said he had dug out camping supplies like sleeping bags and extra lights in preparation for losing power again.  

Power regulation is unique in Texas, which controls its own grid.

While Abbott and other lawmakers called for an investigation into ERCOT, the state had been put on notice before over similar concerns. Previous winter storms, in both 2011 and 1989, had exposed faults in the system, including poor weatherization of equipment that led to system failures, according to the Dallas Business Journal.

ERCOT officials have defended their preparations for winter storms, saying the severity of the latest weather was beyond the scope of their normal planning.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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