Millions of Texans are still without power, as a record cold snap continues to tax the statewide electric grid beyond its limit—but don’t blame it all on wind turbines.
Contrary to some media reports, experts say frozen wind turbines are only a “tiny” piece of what’s gone wrong, which includes foul-ups in everything from natural gas and nuclear energy in addition to structural issues affecting the uniquely independent system Texas uses to deliver energy to its population.
On Sunday, 10.1 inches of snow fell on San Angelo, Texas, eclipsing the record 2.5 inches the city got in 1951. The border city of Brownsville, Texas, declared its first winter storm watch in a decade, reporting snow for just the third time since 1898. Dallas and Houston are both experiencing sub-freezing temperatures, and Austin, where temperatures normally hover in the mid-60s this time of year, saw 6.4 inches of snow over the weekend—the deepest accumulation in 55 years.
The historic storm system has so far led to more than a dozen deaths across four states, and some 4.3 million homes and businesses in Texas remain dark. This means roughly 12 million people are now without power in the Lone Star State—and some without fresh water.
“I can tell you, we are so busy, I’ve got appointments going into next week already for frozen pipes,” Erika Chew of Houston-based Texas Premier Plumbing told The Daily Beast. “It’s pretty crazy. This is unprecedented.”
In Harris County, which includes Houston, more than 50 people have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in their effort to keep warm using household appliances, according to the fire marshal’s office. That includes a woman and child who were found dead in their home, where a car was being used to generate heat.
In Galveston, the medical examiner’s office is dealing with so many weather related deaths, it has reportedly requested a refrigerated truck to handle the overflow.
Texas was caught flat footed because it hasn’t experienced such cold temperatures in more than a century, said Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Usually we focus most on planning for summer heatwaves,” Daniel Cohan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Houston’s Rice University, told The Daily Beast. “One problem is that a number of our power plants are down this month for scheduled maintenance; they’re tuning up to make sure they're ready to meet the summertime peak demand.”
Eligible Texans have not been able to receive their COVID-19 inoculations as scheduled, and vaccine deliveries to the state are reportedly on hold until at least Wednesday. The White House on Sunday declared Texas a federal disaster zone, which comes on top of the state’s own disaster declaration covering each of its 254 counties. The outages are expected to continue through Tuesday, the day a winter storm warning goes into effect that will last through Thursday morning.
Clint Cash, who lives just outside Dallas, told CNN affiliate KTVT that he’s surviving the cold snap in his parked car after his home lost power. “I’m wearing several layers of clothes to keep my body warm,” he told the outlet.
Through it all, some neighborhoods appear to be less affected than others.
“For all my non-Texan friends... it’s pretty fucked up when Highland Park, basically Texas’ version of Beverly Hills has virtually no outages,” one Twitter user wrote. “Meanwhile [every] other city within a 25-mile radius and beyond has outages and rolling blackouts.”
Some reports have pointed fingers at the state’s fleet of unwinterized wind turbines, which are currently supplying about 25 percent of the state’s energy and can freeze over in cold weather. But Cohan said wind power is only “a tiny piece of what’s gone wrong.” There are various issues at play right now, including a shortage of natural gas and the loss of generating capacity of one of Texas’ four nuclear power plants after its water intakes froze, he said.
“Go right down the list: natural gas, coal, wind, nuclear, solar—all of them are struggling for different reasons right at the same time demand is at an all time high,” explained Cohan. “It’s a systemwide challenge, and you can’t pinpoint one single factor. Actually, the one single factor that’s causing it is this winter freeze, the coldest we’ve had in three decades.”
Texas is the only state in the union with its own independent electric grid. By not crossing state lines, Texas’ grid—which is overseen by the state and run by a consortium of private operators called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)—remains as free as possible from federal regulations.
“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said in a statement.
However, Texas’ energy independence, such as it is, comes with its own price, said Kris Alexander, a former emergency management professional who has worked in both the military and civilian sectors and lives in the Austin area.
Texas has long prided itself on its low taxes, which it also uses to lure businesses to relocate from out of state. Providing billions of dollars in tax breaks to companies like Tesla, which is building a new factory near Austin, means less money in public coffers. Without proper funding, maintenance on infrastructure gets deferred and necessary repairs get delayed, Alexander told The Daily Beast.
From an energy perspective, having an in-state grid that isn’t extensively integrated with those in neighboring states makes it more difficult to buy excess supply during extreme spikes in demand like the one Texas is now experiencing.
“There’s always been some back and forth on that, typical Texas jingoism,” Alexander said. “You know how big Texas is, and in a lot of ways it makes sense. Until it doesn’t.”