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Why Blackouts Struck Texas


Texas power outages: why blackouts struck as temperatures went down.

And why some unfairly blame solar and wind for the significant outages.

Texas' power grid was on the brink of collapse after a cold snap brought record low temperatures, snow, and blackouts across the state. Millions of Texans felt helpless, and some wondered why a condition that generates the most electricity in the US could not keep the lights on. Misinformation about the blackout has also begun to spread online, unfairly blaming wind and solar energy.

About 4 million Texas residents have had to contend with power outages for much of the week as power plants and natural gas pipes freeze, crippling state output capabilities. This prompted the Texas Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT), which oversees the state's power grid, to handle rolling blackouts to prevent grid failure. ERCOT ended the emergency conditions on Friday because no more shutdowns were required.

What's wrong with the energy in Texas?

The winter storm made its way to Texas this past weekend, bringing cold to the state. As temperatures started to fall into the teens on Monday morning, power plant generators across the state began to freeze and offline, contributing to a significant decrease in energy output. Around the same time, the electricity demand grew as people turned on the thermostat.

Almost 50% of Texas's electricity comes from natural gas, with the other half split between coal, wind, nuclear and solar. However, because of the cold, gas can't find its way through the pipes from the ground. ERCOT reports 46,000 megawatts were offline on Wednesday. One megawatt is enough to power about 200 homes a year. As of Wednesday, there are 70 to 80 power stations offline out of 680 across the province. Thermal energy—natural gas, coal, and nuclear—was 28,000 of those megawatts, while wind and solar were 16,000.

"The ability for gas generators to produce, particularly at full output, was affected by the freezing impact on the natural gas supply," said Bill Magness, President, and CEO of ERCOT, during a live stream on Wednesday. "So getting those resources back is the central solution to getting people their power back."

Approximately 40% of the generators went offline due to the cold weather. The large drop in power generated led to a statewide blackout as ERCOT sought to balance supply and demand to avoid a "catastrophic" blackout. This made the outage last much longer than predicted by ERCOT.

As far as severe cold power plants' planning to prevent generators from freezing is concerned, Dan Woodfin, Senior Director of System Operations for ERCOT, says that national requirements are being discussed, but they have yet to be mandatory.

"It's voluntary guidelines for the individual generation companies to decide to do those things," Woodfin said. "They have financial incentive to be able to participate in the market to follow those [regulations] and stay online, but there's no regulation at this point."

He demonstrated that, in the northern states, power generators are usually installed in buildings that help protect them in the winter. Texas, however, leaves generators out to make fair use of them during the summer months when energy demand is high, with more homes using air conditioning. Bringing these generators inside will cause an increase in heat and prohibit them from being used at full capacity. According to Woodfin, there are acceptable practices to keep generators online during cold weather, but they were not enough at shallow temperatures.

Texas has its separate power grid and is not connected to the Eastern Interconnection and Western Interconnection grids of the rest of the nation. The state can draw power from neighboring states and Mexico, but the amount available is small. It didn't help either that neighboring states needed all their energy to keep up with demand.

Audio of the February 9 meeting of ERCOT officials indicated that they might not have taken the winter storm as seriously as they should have, local news outlet KSAT-12 reported on Friday. The next winter storm was debated for less than 40 seconds during the two-hour and 28-minute sessions, KSAT-12 said. ERCOT CEO Bill Magness answered, speaking to the outlet, "I think it was the first thing I mentioned when I started briefing the board ... there were certainly lots of communications from us, and if what I said indicated we weren't concerned, I was just trying to notify the board that this is something we gotta keep an eye on because it's coming at us."

What's the case with people who blame the wind and the sun?

Confusion over the cause of blackouts began to spread on social media Tuesday, particularly from government officials.

"The reason for blackouts is complex, but in summary: Texas took too many lessons from Cali, over-subsidized renewables, & pushed out baseload energy like natural gas," said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, on Tuesday.

A similar sentiment came from fellow GOP Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, who said on Facebook on Tuesday, "Our reliance on renewable energy needs to be revisited IMMEDIATELY."

But on Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, pointed to the freezing of natural gas as part of the issue.

"The reason why power is not available for your viewers is that the power generators froze up, and their equipment was incapable of generating power. Then on top of that, the natural gas that flows into those power generators, that is frozen up also," said Abbott to Houston's ABC-13.

However, on Tuesday night, Abbott went to Sean Hannity's Fox News program and offered another description of what had happened.

"Our wind and solar got shut down, and they are collectively 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it lacked power on a statewide basis," Hannity said. "As a result, it shows fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas."

However, according to ERCOT officials, much of the energy lost came from thermal energy, mostly natural gas, not wind or solar power.

"As of 9 a.m.," the organization said in a press release Wednesday, "approximately 46,000 MW of generation has been forced off the system during this extreme winter weather event. Of that, 28,000 MW is thermal, and 18,000 MW is wind and solar."

Abbott claimed to have gone back to his remarks at a press conference in Austin on Wednesday.

"I was asked a question on one TV show about renewable, and I responded to that question," said Abbott. "Every source of power that the state of Texas has been compromised."

When is the electricity going back on?

Wednesday, ERCOT did not have an exact time when power would be restored but said the best-case scenario was Thursday morning. On Thursday, it was noted that the majority of customers had their lights switched back on and that the grid was stable. Standard conditions were re-established on Friday.

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additional damage
downed power line
minimal damage
devastating tornado
severe thunderstorms
multiple deaths
street flooding
heavy winds
gusty winds
heavy downpour
f tornadoes
downed trees
strong storms
severe weather
hurricane irene
additional fatalities
hurricane charley
straight-line winds
catastrophic damage
downed power lines
deadly tornado
falling tree
severe flooding
indirect deaths
worst damage
great blizzard
few tornadoes
possible tornado
hurricane bob
widespread damage
galveston hurricane
multiple tornadoes
slick roads
flash floods
extensive flooding
first tornado
the early morning hours
major snowstorm
hurricane wilma
record rainfall
moderate damage
other tornadoes
dust storm
torrential rains
hurricane hugo
significant flooding
high wind
south padre island
storm system
hurricane agnes
very high winds
electrical outages
widespread flooding
extensive property damage
major storm
massive damage
hurricane alicia
violent tornado
hurricane donna
severe wind