Texas produces more power than any other state but that superlative was no match for Mother Nature. During the recent unprecedented cold snap, residents turned up the heat, circuits got overloaded and the demand caused the state to go dark. Natural gas, coal, wind, and nuclear facilities in Texas were simultaneously knocked offline by the incredibly low temperatures, leading to deaths.
By Friday, Feb. 12, temperatures had dropped to 24 degrees in Dallas. Residents across the state were told to start conserving energy but there still wasn’t enough energy to sustain the demand. On top of this, wind turbines and oil pipes froze, leading to equipment failure.
Nuclear power plants depend on liquid water to operate and at least one unit in South Texas shut down due to the cold weather, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Texas gets about 11 percent of its power from nuclear, CNN reported.
Texas is the No. 1 U.S. state in both crude oil and natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Texas wind power is also strong, producing about 28 percent of all U.S. wind-powered electricity in 2019, CNN reported.
Despite all of these energy resources, Texas is not used to cold weather and its infrastructure was unprepared. More common in Texas is 100-degree heat. Dallas-Fort Worth had 71 100-degree days in 2011.
Here are seven things to know about the Lone Star State’s dangerous electricity crisis that left more than 4 million people without power as of Tuesday.
In 2017, Texas became the state with the largest Black population, overtaking New York, according to Black Demographics. A large majority of its Black population (about 65 percent) lives in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan areas. Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont have smaller but significant numbers of Black residents. Small Black populations also live in the cities of West Texas and the Texas Panhandle such as Amarillo, Odessa, and El Paso.
Many of the state’s Black residents remain without power while other areas are going back online. Black neighborhoods have been hit especially hard, according to the New York Times.
“Whether it’s flooding from severe weather events like hurricanes or it’s something like this severe cold, the history of our response to disasters is that these communities are hit first and have to suffer the longest,” said Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and an expert on wealth and racial disparities related to the environment.
“These are communities that have already been hit hardest with covid. They’re the households working two minimum wage jobs, the essential workers who don’t get paid if they don’t go to work,” Bullard said.
In Houston, local environmental groups said that predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods were among the first to lose power. They may also be the last to have power restored.
One person speculated about racial disparities, “Power was restored to 400,000 Texans Tuesday afternoon. But @oncor will not say where. I know where!! Highland park!!! I have friends there said they have had outages but as of this afternoon they have had power. Seems like @oncor does not want to tell us which wealthy areas got.”
Critics of renewable energy can’t just blame the frozen wind turbines for being unable to light up Texas. It was an energy failure all around.
“About half of Texas homes heat their homes with natural gas, about half do it with electricity, and about half our power plants also consume natural gas to make that electricity,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at The University of Texas, according to Gizmodo. “We just have this unprecedented strain on both our major energy grids that is just way beyond what they were designed to handle.”
The low supply and high demand sent electricity prices in Texas soaring in the past week, increasing more than 10,000 percent in some cases. Power prices spiked to a staggering $9,000 a megawatt-hour, Bloomberg reported.
Typically, a 100-megawatt Texas wind farm, for example, might normally earn up to $40,000 over two days in February. But that same wind farm may have reaped more than $9.5 million on Feb. 15 and Feb. 16 of 2021 alone, said Nicholas Steckler, a power-markets analyst at BloombergNEF. On Feb. 15, electricity sales likely totaled $10 billion, according to Wood Mackenzie.
Oil prices went through the roof as well. The supply shortfall caused U.S. oil prices to rise above $60 a barrel for the first time since January 2020, CNN reported.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called for an investigation into the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT, which controls most of the state’s grid. The group’s CEO has defended the controlled outages, saying they “kept the grid from collapsing” and sending the entire state into a complete blackout.
But some are blaming Abbott not only for the energy failure, but also for deaths during the cold freeze.
A Houston woman and little girl died from carbon monoxide poisoning after they kept their car running in garage to keep warm. “Reminder: This all happened under Gregory Abbott’s watch. He was too busy focusing on the national anthem and stopping the defunding of police,” a Twitter user posted.
The blame game is in full-on mode. “It was the frozen wind turbines that foolishly replaced traditional sources. No, fossil fuels were at fault. No, Texas’s deregulated power market, unique in the country, had allowed companies to skimp on maintenance and upgrades,” reporters wrote in a Bloomberg article describing the finger-pointing.
Some experts say the grid couldn’t handle the power demand due to the extreme cold.
“All sources of energy are underperforming in the extreme cold because they’re not designed to handle these unusual conditions,” said Jason Bordoff, a former energy official in the Obama administration and director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, in a CNN report.
State officials agree. “We were woefully unprepared for this kind of cold,” said Texas State Rep. Ron Reynolds, whose house is without power. “They got caught with their pants down and now millions of Texans have no power. This is a matter of life and death.”
Still, people on Twitter questioned why Texas wasn’t prepared: “How come folks in the Midwest go through bad winters without losing power?”
Another posted, “Every year Texas has inclement weather but Centerpoint can’t get their shit together—like ever but our prices rise after these events. How is it downtown and Galleria were lit? Nobody was told to pre plan for days of no power in TX. We were told to stay off the roads”
The cold snap brought Texas’ might oil industry to a halt. The sprawling Port Arthur oil refinery, the largest in the U.S., shut down on Feb. 15 citing “unprecedented freezing temperatures.” Additionally, serval drillers went offline as temperatures in the Permian Basin, the nation’s fracking capital, dropped below zero. Prices at the pump are also on the rise. The national average could easily rise 15 cents per gallon over the next week or two, according to Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.
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Texas isn’t into sharing, it seems, and sharing may have helped prevent a power outage. The state “refuses to connect its grid with neighbors in part out of fear that the system will fall under federal oversight and regulation. But its politicians are coming to realize that independence has a downside,” Bloomberg reported.
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