The Gateway Unpacks: How we ended up in a power crisis


Anton Johnson
The Gateway Unpacks is a column that seeks to make political news, both local and national, accessible to anybody.

Was it frozen wind turbines? Climate change? An act of God to get Ted Cruz out of the country? Let’s get to the bottom of this. Photo courtesy of AP.

A polar vortex brought dangerously cold temperatures to much of the United States last week. Omaha got as cold as 23 degrees below zero on Tuesday. Bad weather in Nebraska isn’t usually notable, but this storm brought Nebraska-like weather to Texas.

This resulted in controlled, rolling power outages in several states due to the amount of energy being used to heat homes. Because of Texas’ unique system, it faced a power crisis worse than any other state.

Electricity in the U.S. is divided between three grids: the Eastern Interconnect, the Western Interconnect, and the Texas Interconnect. Texas’ power grid, which covers most but not all of the state, is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)..

The reason Texas couldn’t import electricity from other states is because the state is on a separate grid. This usually isn’t a problem, as Texas is the largest producer of energy in the U.S. But the state was bizarrely cold last week, meaning Texans had to use much more energy than usual to keep their homes warm.

The reason people in Nebraska were subject to rolling outages was the opposite: our electricity is connected with other states. The Southwest Power Pool, which includes utilities from North Dakota to parts of Texas, had to conserve energy to make sure everyone could have heat.

If the storm only reached as far south as Nebraska, it likely wouldn’t have caused any issues; we’ve had weather like this before. But states south of us don’t usually have to use this much energy in the winter, and their infrastructure isn’t prepared for it

ERCOT pointed towards “frozen wind turbines” as one of the issues that contributed to the crisis in a press release. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went on to tell Fox News’ Sean Hannity that this indicates that renewable energy sources like wind aren’t reliable. However, wind is already used in parts of the country that have freezing weather regularly.

That same press release also blamed “limited gas supplies.” Erin Douglas of the Texas Tribune said that frozen gas wells may have been the most contributing factor to the crisis. Again, other cold states produce natural gas as well. The crisis didn’t happen because of any particular form of energy; it happened because they weren’t prepared.

In 2011, Texas faced rolling blackouts from another cold spell. State officials made recommendations to winterize the state’s infrastructure and prevent another crisis. However, these recommendations weren’t followed, and no regulations were officially put in place.

The controlled outages in Texas prevented a statewide blackout. But around 70 deaths were attributed to the storm, several from people who went without heat in their own homes.

Most homes have now had their power restored, but many issues like water disruptions and skyrocketing electricity prices will linger. There are several options for people looking to help Texas recover.