For nearly three full days earlier this week, millions of Texans went without electricity amid the coldest temperatures the state has seen in decades.
According to PowerOutages.us, more than 3 million homes and businesses in Texas were experiencing power outages Wednesday — several days after widespread outages began Sunday night.
The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ECROT) put the state in a Level 3 Alert — the state’s highest emergency level — and said that it is attempting to rotate blackouts from region to region to preserve energy.
With temperatures from Houston to Dallas below freezing, millions of Texans are still in danger — and several deaths linked to the cold have already been reported across the state. And with temperatures expected to remain below freezing through the end of the week, the ECROT still can’t say when the blackouts will end.
So, what’s going on with the blackouts in Texas? And what can be done to prevent a similar disaster in the future?
What’s causing the blackouts?
Basically, Texans are using too much energy at the moment than the state’s power grid can handle. According to the Texas Tribune, ECROT data shows that energy demand surged on Sunday night when temperatures began to drop and Texans turned up their thermostats to heat their homes.
It typically takes more energy to heat a home than air condition a home, and with southern Texas seeing record-lower temperatures, more Texans than ever before needed power to warm up their homes.
However, that record demand was quickly expounded when the weather started knocking power plants offline.
Why are power plants going offline?
For decades, Texas has maintained its own power grid. In fact, according to the Texas Tribune, it's the only state in the union that operates on its own grid — the rest of the continental U.S. is either a part of the Eastern Interconnection or the Western Interconnection.
By keeping its power grid within its own state lines, Texas has long been able to avoid federal rules regarding power regulation. For the most part, the decision to remain off the national grid has kept energy prices lower for those in the state.
Among the regulations the state has been able to avoid is the winterization of power infrastructure. KHOU-TV reports that Texas has not passed any laws requiring the winterization of generators, and ECROT only provides "recommended steps to prepare generators for extreme weather."
Many utility companies have chosen to skip those steps, and have passed savings along to customers. But on Monday, several generators across the state went offline due to the extreme cold and adverse weather.
What about frozen wind turbines?
Among those generators that weren’t winterized were wind turbines, some of which froze earlier this week. Conservative politicians quickly seized on the reports and claimed that the frozen wind turbines were evidence that renewable sources of energy are unreliable.
However, the data from ECROT shows that renewable energy isn’t to blame — most wind turbines have continued to function normally. According to NPR, renewable energy sources have performed “near or above expectations,” and power plants running on fossil fuels have vastly underperformed compared to the capacity they have to power the grid.
What’s being done to prevent this in the future?
Politicians in Texas are already calling for investigations. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, called for an investigation into the ECROT’s grid manager on Tuesday, calling the outages “unacceptable.”