By Terrance Turner
June 14, 2021 (Updated June 15)
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is asking Texans to reduce elctricity use as much as possible through Friday, June 18. “A significant number of forced generation outages combined with potential record electric use for the month of June has resulted in tight grid conditions,” the company said today. ERCOT claims that 11,000 megawatts (MW) of power are unavailable due to forced outages for electric generators. That’s enough to power 2.2 million homes, according to Austin NPR station KUT. (For context, “one MW typically powers around 200 homes on a summer day.”)
ERCOT, which controls most of Texas’ electrical power, forecasts that demand today will exceed 73,000 MW. The daily record is 69,123, set on June 27, 2018. Webber Energy Group research associate Joshua Rhodes told The Texas Tribune that high temperatures cause people to crank up the A/C and thus strain the grid. Demand for electricity “is really driven by temperatures, and right now it is 99 degrees in Dallas, 97 degrees in Austin, and 97 degrees in Houston,” Webber said. ERCOT is asking Texans to set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, turn off lights and pool pumps, and unplug unneeded devices. It is also asking that Texas residents avoid using large appliances like ovens, dryers, and washing machines.
This latest crisis comes just four months after a punishing winter storm exposed the flaws in Texas’ power grid. Beginning on Feb. 15, temperatures plummeted as a wintry mix of rain, sleet, and snow blanketed the state. On Feb. 16, Dallas hit a new low of -2 degrees (its lowest temeprature since 1930). Houston dropped to 13 (its lowest since 1989). College Station was just 5. Galveston was 20. Austin plunged to 7 degrees, breaking a record set in 1903 (per the Austin-American Statesman). According to KSAT, San Antonio fell to 12; the city ended up setting record lows on Feb. 14-16 and 19-20, with lows of 13, 9, 12, 19, and 26 degrees, respectively.
That Tuesday morning (Feb. 16), Texas had 4.3 million power outages, more than any other state. By 12:15 pm, 4.5 million Texans (35% of state residents) were without power, according to the New York Times. The next day, temperatures slowly rose above freezing. On Wednesday (Feb. 17), Houston climbed to 37 degrees by 3 pm, as forecast by Houston affiliate KPRC. San Antonio reached 38 degrees, per KSAT. That evening, a South Texas nuclear plant came back online. 6,000 megawatts were added to the state grid, providing enough power for 1.2 million households. But the Dallas Morning News found that 1.7 million were still without power late Wednesday night.
Texas’ power grid — built specifically to avoid federal regulation — had collapsed under a few inches of snow.
Natural gas, coal and power plants (which provided much of Texas’ electric power) were knocked offline by the storm. Their infrastructure wasn’t built to support such low temperatures. And ERCOT was forced to institute “rolling blackouts” to avoid a total loss of power. But those blackouts lasted for days, in some cases. And the toll on Texans was steep.
Pipes froze and burst, flooding people’s homes. Boil water notices were issued across Texas as more than 12 million residents had their service disrupted, per MSN. Some took to boiling snow to flush their toilets or wash hands and plates. Almost half of Texans lost access to running water during the week of Feb. 14-20, according to a study by the University of Houston. 69% lost electric power at some point that week, the study found.
And many lost their lives. Without heat, power, or running water, many died of hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, or underlying conditions worsened by the storm. The official Texas death toll stands at 151. But a Buzzfeed News analysis revealed that the actual death toll was four to five times higher. Buzzfeed estimates that 700 Texans were killed by the winter storm.
In the aftermath, ERCOT came under heavy fire. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) blamed ERCOT for the disaster. “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said on Feb. 16. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather.” Later, it emerged that many of the ERCOT board members lived out of state, drawing the ire of Texans. Five members of the board resigned in February; two more left in early March. CEO Bill Magness was fired on March 3.
For his part, Abbott vowed to overhaul the state electric grid. But months passed without any legislation being signed. Just last week, on June 8, Gov. Abbott signed into law a pair of bills that address the grid. Senate Bill 2 will shrink the number of seats on the ERCOT board from 16 to 11. It also makes the governor and lieutenant governor more involved in selection. Senate Bill 3 requires electricity providers on the grid managed by ERCOT to weatherize equipment. It also creates a statewide power outage alert system, according to NBC’s Houston affiliate KPRC.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner lamented that Senate Bill 3 doesn’t address supply. State lawmakers hadn’t provided for ERCOT to meet high demand, he said. “They didn’t fix the problem,” he told ABC 13. But Gov. Abbott touted “sweeping reforms” and “improved weatherization” to reporters when he signed the bills last Tuesday. “Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said.