Short Cuts

Why Texas Wasn’t Prepared For Winter Weather

Amid freezing temperatures, roughly 4 million people have lost power.

The winter storm in Texas has cut off power to millions of people.
Ron Jenkins, P A Thompson, Christopher Kimmel/Getty Images

A brutal winter storm has left roughly 4 million Texans without heat and water due to sweeping power outages across the state. Roads are iced over, phone lines are down, and heat is at a premium. On Friday, Feb. 12, Gov. Greg Abbott declared the Texas storm a disaster, as it had knocked out much of the state's famously independent power grid. According to the Texas Tribune, one family used hanging artwork as substitute firewood. It begs the question: How did it come to this?

What’s Unusual About This Texas Storm?

The cold front, which reached the southern U.S. late last week, has brought some of the state's lowest recorded temperatures in 30 years. On Feb. 16, Dallas' temperature dropped to minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit, its lowest since 1949. According to The Guardian, some scientists think a heating Arctic is to blame, as it has disrupted global weather patterns.

How Has The Texas Storm Affected Power Outages?

Many homes aren't properly insulated for severe cold. As people cranked up their heat, it caused huge pressure on the power grid. The system was swamped with demand, plants failed to produce enough energy, and blackouts followed. As of Feb. 17, at least 3 million Texans remain without power, and 21 people have died from issues related to the weather. (In total, outages have affected around 4 million residents.) The Houston Chronicle reports that around 34,000 megawatts, a third of Texas' total potential power, has been "knocked offline."

The state's sole energy operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is attempting to shift outages from people who've had power to those without.

What's Up With Texas' Power Grid?

Texas operates an independent power grid, overseen by just one agency, ERCOT. It's been a major source of pride for Texans because it's not connected to other state power lines and can sidestep federal regulations. But according to Reuters, because of how isolated the system is, ERCOT unfortunately can't ask for additional electricity from other states now.

The problems in the Lone Star State are multifold: Demand has increased. Power plants across Texas have been hobbled by the weather, including a broken reactor at one of the state's two nuclear plants. And because the state typically experiences peak energy demands over the summer, some plants may be down for maintenance.

Roughly 50% of the state's power comes from natural gas, with about 21% from wind and solar energy. According to the Washington Post, the energy cost of natural gas plants knocked out by the weather outnumbered the losses of wind turbines by a factor of five.

What Are Energy Experts Saying?

Varun Rai, the director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke with USA Today. "No matter which way you cut it, this is a massive failure for a grid and a state that holds up energy and electricity as a shining example," he said.

How Long Will The Cold Front In Texas Last?

Texas will face more wintry weather this week, lasting until at least Feb. 18. Warmer temperatures around 60 degrees are expected this weekend. But until then, according to the Texas Tribune, there's no timeline on when the state might have its power restored.