Power Outage Explained

News
February 21, 2021

Paul Robbins has been an Austin energy activist and reporter for decades. He wrote this story "during the worst part of the Texas electric outage (Wednesday, 2/17/21).  It explains several of the reasons why, and how much or all of it could have been prevented."

Only in Texas: The Power Outage

Paul Robbins

Published on February 17, 2021


PowerOutage Screenshot.png


When this story was released, about 27% of Texas electric customers were without electricity. The outage rate had been as high as 34%.

The introductory image was from the Web site poweroutage.us

The site has frequent updates and allows drilling down to the county and utility-provider level.

My reason for posting this is to show that while almost every U.S. state had almost no outages, including every state on the Canadian border and Alaska, Texas was reeling. No other state had come close to crisis levels in Texas in either total numbers of customers without power or the percentage of customers without power.

Articles analyzing this wreckage have started to flow, and many readers on this site have or shortly will read them. But to summarize, here are three of the main reasons.

1. The Texas ERCOT electric system, which serves about 90% of the state, is an "island grid." It has extremely low amounts of transmission capacity to import emergency power from other states. This was intentionally set up this way because Texas did not want to be regulated by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Authority. NO other state in the Mainland United States does this.

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2. ERCOT is an "energy only" electricity market that seeks the lowest price without regard to the amount of firm capacity provided or reliability. Since sustained winter storms like the one Texas was experiencing are relatively rare, some power plant operators did not spend the money necessary to adequately winterize their generation units the way operators in other states did.  When the cold wave hit Texas, it was too cold to start and/or operate them.

3. In the case of gas generation units, some of these operators did not provide an adequate supply of low-cost gas, and then scrambled to buy it at scalper's prices if they could even find it. The gas supply at well sites is constrained because cold weather adversely impacts gas output. While it is common to store gas underground for peak periods in electric and gas utilities, the storage premium costs extra money and (obviously) not every gas power plant operator secured necessary back-up fuel. And these power plants competed on the spot gas purchase market with gas utilities providing essential heat to residences and critical customers such as hospitals.

While some Texans without electricity could at least rely on natural gas for heat, it is important (and alarming) to note that an estimated 61% of Texas homes in 2019 used electricity as their main source of heating. (U.S. Census, Table B25040). In Travis County, where I live, it is 55%. The discomfort is bad enough, but in some cases, this  could have been life threatening.  

The Texas Legislature is scheduling hearings, and a great reckoning will probably occur. My largest point though is that this could have been predicted and prevented. However, Texas political culture brought this on with a narrow view of "independence" and allowing utilities to skimp on reliability costs for the sake of (probably slightly) lower electricity costs.

To twist a quote from the movie "The Paper," I don't live in the #%^@!!$ world! I live in #%^@!!$ Texas!

Paul Robbins is the editor of the
Austin Environmental Directory.

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