Texas' Winter Power Outage Dumpster Fire

Texas' Winter Power Outage Dumpster Fire

The Texas Winter Storm caused mass confusion, but who's to blame for the Lone Star States' energy crisis.

Thad Warren By Thad Warren

What the heck is going on in Texas?

Millions without power, heat, and or water. Freezing temps that would make anyone north of the Red River shiver…What the heck?

You have probably seen various statements like this:

ERCOT has issued an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) level 3. In short, this means there is not enough supply to meet energy demand, so utilities like Oncor and CenterPoint are forced to reduce demand on the electric grid the only way they can - shutting customers off from power, via rolling or controlled blackouts. 

But why is this happening, when will it be fixed, and how could it have been avoided?

Why is my power out?

Most power outages are being caused by either ERCOT directed rolling blackouts or winter weather-related outages.  

Why rolling blackouts?

When there is not enough energy supply to meet demand, utilities are forced to limit demand by cutting power to customers via a “rolling” or “controlled” blackout. The idea is to give access to as many people as possible by sharing energy supply in time increments. 

Yes, this sucks. 

Unfortunately, there is very little utilities can do in the short term. If you have a question about your outage contact your utility. There is a list of all Texas utilities on this page. Be prepared to get a busy signal because they are overwhelmed as well. 

Winter weather-related outages?

You could be on the wrong side of an issue with the transmission or distribution system that delivers the power to your address. It could be a power line, a transformer, or any other piece of equipment that helps deliver power. 

Just because you do not see downed power lines or equipment sparking, this does not mean that the delivery system to your home is working. During extended bitter cold weather equipment and components in the grid can malfunction or work irregularly.

My power comes in short bursts around 5 minutes then turns off

You could be experiencing a rolling blackout or your utility could be working to repair equipment. Additionally, the equipment could be malfunctioning due to the bitter cold. Your utility likely has an outage map or other info to answer this question.

Why has my power been out for 12+ hours?

While some Texans will see their power turn on and off throughout the day others have said they have been without electricity for extended periods of time. In many cases, this is a separate issue from the rolling blackouts. 

It is likely that your home or business is having an outage due to a transmission or distribution issue like power lines, transformers, etc., damaged by winter weather. As you can imagine utility workers are overwhelmed with repairs. Hazardous conditions and a mountain of work orders mean you could be without power for a while. 

If you have a question about your outage contact your utility. There is a list of all Texas utilities on this page. Again, be prepared to get a busy signal because they are being flooded with phone calls. 

Why is there not enough electric supply to meet demand?

The winter weather conditions have caused a considerable decrease in generation. Wind, natural gas,  and coal generation have all been affected. 

ERCOT has reported there were 45,000 megawatts offline. Of that, 15,000 megawatts were wind and 30,000 were gas and coal. 

Combine generation outages with a spike in demand (almost double what would usually be needed on any given day in February) and you have an extreme shortage. 

What is being done to increase the electricity supply?

On February 15, 2021, the Public Utility Commission of Texas issued an emergency order on electricity pricing. 

This order serves as a distress call to energy generators to increase/fix/or do anything they can to start producing electricity, by increasing the ceiling of what energy generators can be paid for electricity. 

With more money being injected into generation it allows more expensive generation methods, repairs, and resources to be deployed to create more supply. More supply means more customers with power.

This order does not increase what customers will pay for electricity. 

But because of the volatile state of the energy market variable pricing for customers is higher than usual. As more power is generated the less volatile the market and the faster pricing will fall. 

If you are on a fixed-rate electricity plan, you will not see an increase in your contract’s rate.

If you are on a variable-rate electricity plan you should look to find a new supplier as soon as possible. Until the market balances out short term variable rates will go up. 

Why was the power grid in Texas not prepared to handle an impending winter storm?

Texas rarely sees freezing temperatures and when it does they are usually followed by warmer temps shortly after. This storm was an extremely rare occurrence that the Texas energy grid was not built for. 

The systems and equipment needed to keep all types of generation operational during such a rare event increase the cost that trickles down to the consumer. Would you have be willing to pay  a higher price for electricity for the past 10 years so that on the rare occurrence of a winter storm you could have heat?

If you are reading this now in your cold home, you would probably say yes. Although if someone proposed higher electric rates back in July when your energy bill was already through the roof. 

During a normal year, Texas’ biggest energy challenge is keeping power running when demand spikes from a heatwave - not a blast of arctic air.  

What about the northern states - They have cold weather all the time!

Other northern states have built an energy infrastructure that fits their demand and climate needs. And even then they still have issues.

Remember the Polar Vortex of 2014? The North-Eastern portion of the US had energy infrastructure failures that left thousands without power. The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) even did an official review of the event as a way to help prevent future outages.

How could this have been avoided?

This is a hard question to answer. Gov. Greg Abbott has announced that ERCOT will be investigated to ensure Texans never experience power outages like this in the future. 

What is ERCOT

ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) manages the flow of electricity to most of Texas via the Texas Interconnection, one of 9 ISO (independent system operator) in North America.

ERCOT is a non-profit corporation overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and Texas Legislature that manages the flow of electricity to over 26 million Texas customers. 

Why does Texas have its own grid?

Texas has always operated its own power grid. During the early 1900's regional utilities in Texas created their own connections to help deliver power across the state. 

In 1935 Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which granted the federal government authority to regulate interstate power lines. Texas decided to opt out of the regulation. 

Local utilities managed the grid up until 1970 when ERCOT was formed after a major blackout in the Northeast in 1965. 

The grid managed by ERCOT covers about 75% of land area of Texas and 90% of its residents. Although the Texas grid is mostly independent, it does have connections to other grids. Two in the northeast part of Texas and two in the southern region that connect to Mexico. 

What’s the difference between ERCOT and my local utility (ex: Oncor, CenterPoint, AEP)

Utilities in Texas like Oncor, AEP, and CenterPoint are responsible for the transmission and delivery of your power to your home or business. Utilities maintain the power lines, meters, and other electricity hardware that get the power to your property. 

ERCOT is the organization that oversees the entire market’s demand for electricity. Utilities rely on ERCOT to forecast and manage the grid’s demand for electricity. 

ERCOT also facilitates the open market on which energy is procured by Retail Electric Providers, like TXU and Cirro Energy, and sold to you. In most cases, you pay your electric bill to your electricity provider. 

When the relationship between ERCOT, utilities, and providers works, it works really well. Texas often has some, if not the lowest electricity rates of any state. Per EIA.gov, the average price of electricity in Texas is 18% below the national average.

When something goes wrong, it’s painful. 

The ideal scenario

In an ideal world, as generation systems started to fail in the cold, ERCOT would have just “flipped the switch” on generators that are able to operate to meet demand. 

Crisis averted...right?

Not that simple. Energy generation facilities are expensive to build, maintain, and operate. Investing the millions (or billions) of dollars it would cost to make that possible would have to come from somewhere. 

Going forward

The review of ERCOT’s handling of this event will be telling, but hindsight is often 20-20. 

Barring some gross oversight from ERCOT, this will most likely be chalked up as an unprecedented generational weather event.

While incredibly unfortunate, there will likely be little feasible action that could have been taken to prevent mass outages. 

For more information visit The Texas Public Utility Commission website