We should have seen this coming

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The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot these days and it’s tempting to apply it to the winter storm that left millions of Texans without power. However, this disaster wasn’t entirely unprecedented and previous cold snaps and outages should have given Texas plenty of heads-up that its grid needed to be prepared for a freeze. The problem is that our leaders ignored the warnings.

Severe cold-weather events are not as common in Texas as they are in other parts of the country but they are not unheard of. They’ve occurred multiple times in the past few decades, and two of them were bad enough to cause widespread power outages. 

The first came in 1989 when arctic air descended on Texas for three days. Temperatures were comparable to what Texas just experienced, reaching a low of 7 degrees in Houston and dipping below zero in Dallas and Abilene. The weather placed an enormous strain on the state’s grid and 1989 became the first year ERCOT resorted to system-wide rolling blackouts to prevent wider outages. A 1990 report by the Public Utilities Commission of Texas found that Texas’ energy infrastructure was inadequately prepared for the cold and recommended winterization improvements to prevent such occurrences in the future. “The near-complete loss of the ERCOT grid brings an awareness that, even in Texas, plant operators must prepare for cold weather emergencies…this awareness of and attention to cold weather problems must be continued,” the report concluded. 

However, these warnings largely went unheeded and Texas actually deregulated its electrical sector in the following years. Then came another blackout in 2011 as an arctic cold front swept across the country. 210 generating units in Texas experienced an outage, a derate, or failed to start. 1.3 million people were out of power at the peak of the event. To make matters worse, this occurred as Texas hosted the Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium. 

In the aftermath, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation put together a 357-page report examining what happened in 2011 as well as previous Texas cold weather events like 1989. Once again, the report highlighted vulnerabilities to cold weather in the Texas grid and recommended that proper winterization be implemented. 

One of the problems highlighted by the federal government’s report was with natural gas, preemptively debunking the GOP lie that would arise in 2021 that the issue was all about renewables. Without adequate winterization, water produced alongside natural gas will freeze or crystallize in cold weather, which in turn can completely block gas flow. The report noted that these “freeze-offs” had occurred to some extent in all six previous cold-weather events, with the possible exception of 1983 where adequate records are not available.  It’s not an issue inherent to natural gas as the energy source is used in plenty of cold places like Siberia, but gas systems must be winterized to prevent it from happening. 

The federal government’s report was released ten years ago, yet Texas leaders once again failed to properly heed warnings about the vulnerability of Texas’ grid to the cold. Then came the catastrophic events of 2021. Texas’ natural gas infrastructure failed, as did coal and even nuclear, leaving millions without water or electricity. 

The tragedy is that this was all too predictable. 2011 and 1989 should have alerted state leadership to the problem well in advance of 2021. But they ignored the warning signs and people died. Texans deserve accountability for their negligence.  

Photo: Matthew T Rader / Wikimedia Commons

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