At the height of Winter Storm Uri in February, at least 4.5-million Texas homes were without power. As blackouts scattered the state and surrounded urban hubs like Fort Worth, Austin, Dallas, and Houston, Texans were forced to get creative to get by. Some, left without heat, used their ovens and cars to stay warm. Others, left without clean water, boiled what came from their faucets and melted snow.
The outages were a way for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, to reduce load on an energy system under strain. As it hurdled toward full-on collapse, “load shed” (strategic blackouts to reduce use of the grid) was the only way to prevent the whole system from going dark, operators say.
And while demand on the grid during the time was unprecedented, the temperatures that warranted it were not. Texas was unprepared for a weather event that regulators had seen coming for around a decade. Weatherization, strategic crisis communication, and regional transmission connections communication could have mitigated some of Uri’s worst effects, according to 10 energy experts and co-authors of a new retrospective report on the causes of the Texas grid failure, published this month in Energy Research and Social Science.
“The causes were sort of this unfortunate perfect storm,” said Kyri Baker, a coauthor of the study and assistant professor in civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Some of it was poor forecasting, some of it was not winterizing, even though a similar event happened in 2011 .... a lot of it could have been prevented.”
Every energy source powering Texas’ grid, with the exception of solar power, underperformed compared to the capacity ERCOT expected it to be able to handle, the report notes.
The report studied two different metrics: Normal expected energy capacity, and energy capacity under an "extreme scenario." Natural gas and coal vastly underperformed both the expected normal energy capacity and expected capacity in an extreme scenario. Wind energy underperformed expected capacity under normal circumstances, but overperformed what was expected in an "extreme scenario."
These findings stand sharply in contrast to the claims that Texas’ grid failures were solely the fault of frozen wind turbines. “It got cold last night, and the windmills froze, and as a result millions of Texans are freezing,” Fox News correspondent argued at the time of the outages. (This claim was quickly debunked, but continued grid shortages in Texas last week resurfaced fears that failing wind turbines could be the source of ERCOT’s woes; reports like this one continue to dispel this myth.)
“If you're somebody who's looking at making large investments in energy, you're probably going to actually do your research and read between the lines, and see that wind didn't underperform as much as people are claiming,” Baker said.
Instead, the natural gas system responsible for 46 percent of Texas’ energy saw supply chain failures in four places: freezing at natural gas wells and gathering lines, outages at compressor stations and equipment breakdowns at power plants, the study found.
This created what they call a “vicious cycle,” in which the state’s gas and electrical systems were unable to support each other. Gas is burned to produce electricity, which is then used to support systems that produce gas, and so on. With both interrupted, the state’s grid came within “minutes of collapse,” the authors write.
“Gas was expected to be a reliable source,” Baker says. “Typically there's not an issue with pumping it to the power plants, but because of all these things, gas seriously underperformed, so we had a huge deficit.”
With investments in winterization, among other things, Texas could have prevented this “vicious cycle” at the root of the blackouts, the paper notes.
For wind turbines, that could mean strategically deicing blades; for gas wells and producing infrastructure lines, that could mean insulation and heat tracing (in which an electrical heating element is installed throughout a device and turned on to maintain its temperature). Notably, only six percent of Texas oil and gas wells produce 60 percent of the state’s gas; so these measures could be applied to a small portion of the state to have widespread impact.
Baker places some faith in one of two bills Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on June 8 requiring power plants to weatherize to prevent future grid failures like February’s. But this, alone, is not enough to prevent blackouts altogether: Where supply-side reforms aren’t possible, demand-side work is necessary, Baker says.
That means communicating clearly with Texans about grid strain, requesting demand reductions when needed (like ERCOT did last week, when the grid saw peak demand during a hot spell), and encouraging the use of automated grid response tools, like smart thermostats, which lower consumers’ energy usage for them when utilities note peak demand. (The latter has been controversial among those who fear the government or utilities controlling their appliances for them, but Baker believes these tools are effective and will be essential to lowering the risk of future blackouts.)
“It's unfortunate that you have to be in a 78 degree home, but the power going out could literally kill people,” Baker said. “Keeping the system alive is something that I think the average person probably doesn't have a good handle on because ERCOT didn't really explain why we're being asked to sacrifice.”