How February’s Winter Storm Is a Wake-Up Call for Texas — and Beyond

Texas Winter 2021 Storm

“The fact of the matter is if we have another storm like this, that hit in two weeks, we’d be in the same boat” 

Texas is still picking up the pieces after a winter storm swept across the state last month, putting an unprecedented strain on the state’s electrical grid. Much of the state had below-freezing temperatures for days, along with record snowfall. The state’s power grid was also crippled, leaving millions without electricity for days followed by failing water systems.  

Though officials are still trying to figure out the exact number of deaths, the winter storm left dozens dead, including an 11-year-old boy who died after his family’s mobile home lost power. 

Homes and the state’s infrastructure were also damaged, resulting in a massive economic toll. The Perryman Group, a Texas-based economic research firm, projected that costs from Texas’ weeklong freeze and power outages could top $200 billion, rivaling the costs of Hurricanes Harvey and Ike, which are considered among the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the United States. 

The question on many minds is whether Texas will be able to prepare in time for the next winter storm — after all, last month’s freeze wasn’t unprecedented, as the state’s power plants have been disrupted by cold weather before. In both 1989 and 2011, frigid temperatures led to some significant power disruptions, causing the state’s key power infrastructure, including natural gas wells, to freeze up, cutting off a major source of electricity and heating for Texans. 

Following the 2011 freeze, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and nonprofit known as the North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a report, saying the Public Utility Commission of Texas recommended several actions to ensure power plants could withstand extreme weather. These actions included yearly reviews to check for cold-weather preparedness and maintaining proper insulation. 

Josh Rhodes, an energy research associate at The University of Texas at Austin, said part of the problem was that grid operators and power companies didn’t adopt these guidelines. Rhodes believes state officials “need to take a good, hard look” at how to enforce these guidelines — and he warns that the state should not waste any time. 

“The fact of the matter is if we have another storm like this, that hit in two weeks, we’d be in the same boat. Like there’s nothing you can really do. Even in that short period of time, we need to move fast,” he told KCM.

Unlike other states, Texas also has its own power grid — and this is largely to avoid federal regulation. This grid is part of three power grids in the U.S.; there’s one grid system that covers the eastern U.S. and another one that covers western states. While the winter blast was affecting other parts of the state, Rhodes said Texas could have been able to mitigate the crisis better if it had been more interconnected. 

Rhodes isn’t alone in criticizing the lack of preparedness. The Texas grid known as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) faced scrutiny amid rolling outages during the winter storm, which the company said were necessary to prevent a widespread blackout. After a Texas electric utility filed for bankruptcy amid a $2.1 billion ERCOT bill, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the resignations of top Public Utility Commission and ERCOT officials.

Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, has an idea on where to begin when it comes to improving preparedness, saying the state can remedy the situation by either weatherizing the gas transport infrastructure or having some storage close to power plants. 

“Making sure key natural gas transport infrastructure is weatherized is going to be key because that’s the workhorse of our power sector is natural gas, and that’s got to be able to flow no matter what the temperature is,” he said.  

In addition to adding some weatherization regulations “with teeth,” Krane also recommended other straightforward steps like ensuring that homes are better insulated to retain heat and incorporating more energy efficiency within building codes. 

But Krane warned that blaming Texas’s energy crisis on renewable energy or fossil fuels is misplaced, saying different power sources are often needed to work in tandem together to function 24/7. 

“There is a lot of competition in the Texas power market but it’s not coal versus wind or coal versus gas or wind versus coal,” he said. “Every power plant is competing against every other power plant, so it sort of is a technology agnostic competition, but wind and gas are almost like a single system, and if you conceive of them as complementary, it’s a better way of looking at it,” he said. 

In addition to the general lack of preparedness, there’s also the increasing variability and unpredictability of a changing climate. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist based in Texas, said while it is not unheard of to get a storm of this magnitude in Texas, the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the world and slowing down the jet stream. Scientists are now beginning to ask whether there could be a connection between the Arctic getting warmer, bigger troughs in the jet stream and bigger outbreaks of Arctic air. 

“These outbreaks are like opening the freezer door in the Arctic and letting all that cold air pour out,” she told CNN. But Hayhoe also added that the majority of impacts from these Arctic blasts stems from a lack of preparation on part of the power grid. 

Ultimately, Rhodes said the Texas freeze should be a wake-up call for other parts of the country, emphasizing every grid needs to take stock of what it is built for. For instance, unlike Texas, New York isn’t built for extreme heat the way it is for extreme cold. 

“Other grids would have problems if they experienced temperatures of 105 for a week straight as we do down here [in Texas] and it is hot,” he said. “We don’t like those temperatures, but generally our grid is able to handle that because it’s built for that type of thing.” 

Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, expressed a similar sentiment. She wouldn’t be surprised by multiple grid emergencies somewhere in the U.S. or even the world as a result of a heat wave, storm, or fire even a few months from now. 

“We might not have outages as severe as what we saw in Texas,” she said, noting the state’s particular connectivity quirks and winter design challenges.

“But we certainly will continue to push our infrastructure well beyond its design constraints as we face decades of underinvestment in maintenance while simultaneously trying to both mitigate and adapt to climate change,” she added. 

Written and reported by Tess Bonn.