FORT WORTH, Texas — Over a couple frigid days in February, as demand for power soared, generators across Texas tripped up and failed to operate in wintry conditions. Long outages ensued across the state, and millions of Texans were left without power. Even more wondered how something like this could happen here. "You would have never thought you would see the day in the energy capital of the world," said one oil company CEO.
Plenty of sentences like those have been written in the last 48 hours, but everything described above is actually from 2011. Yes, Texas has been here before. Although temperatures throughout the state have touched record lows over the past few days, creating a perfect storm to stress the power system, severe outages on Texas' deregulated, independent grid are not unprecedented.
Leaders in both the private and public sector knew something like this could happen. They have called for investigations over weather-related energy failures and quickly arranged hearings at the Capitol before, just as they are doing now. And their inability to make lasting reforms after previous winter storms left millions of Texans in danger during one of the worst weather events in the history of the state.
"It may not be an event that you plan for, but it's got to be an event that you are prepared for," said Jim Robb, President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has authored reports on Texas' grid.
The power started going out in large swaths of Texas on Sunday, as grid manager ERCOT selected areas for blackouts to avoid the system being overworked. ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said ERCOT knew extremely cold weather — and a resulting increase in demand — was coming, but the organization was surprised to find how much the energy supply had dropped.
By Tuesday, 45,000 megawatts had tripped offline, potentially enough to power 22 million homes. (About one-third of the lost power came from wind sources and the rest from fossil fuel sources.) In 2011, the estimated total that unexpectedly dropped from the grid was 8,000 megawatts.
The exact causes for what tripped up the power supply will be investigated and determined. So far, ERCOT officials and outside experts have pointed to a few likely reasons, none of which are new. For one, the ability to move natural gas appeared to falter because of the weather and was made available at first priority to consumers, rather than power generators. The move helped the general public with their heating needs but may have prevented some generators from getting the natural gas they need to produce electricity at their plants.
The other reason is purely about the cold: The power generators' equipment, both for wind energy operators and fossil fuel operators, was not ready for the extreme temperatures. "It's those private companies that generate power that are not working," said Gov. Greg Abbott in a TV interview. "Some of them literally froze up, and were incapable of providing power, and some are still incapable of providing power."
The deep freeze and blackouts of 2011 were caused by almost the exact same reasons. Less than two weeks later, the Texas Legislature and Public Utility Commission held hearings, coming up with a bill on winterizing techniques for generators.
But the only requirement of the bill, which was signed into law that June, was timing: Generators must file a weather preparation report with ERCOT by Dec. 1 that ERCOT sends to the PUC. There are no standards for generators to meet or any methods for sanctioning them. Even turning the report in on time has been a challenge: More than 30 generators filed theirs late this year.