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Texas got close to the brink this week, as bad weather, inadequate preparation and weak leadership left millions without electricity and water, endangered in a prosperous state that ought to know better.
The toll has been awful. At one point, more than 4 million households were without power, and as many as 13 million people were in places on Thursday afternoon where tap water, if it was even available, wasn’t safe until it was boiled for two minutes. Unlike a summer peak in energy demand, electrical generators were competing for natural gas with regular folks, many of whom use gas to heat their homes. And the public health effect — the number of people hurt, sickened or killed by the storm, hasn't been measured.
In a state where widespread snow and ice is infrequent, the dangers of getting out on the roads blocked normal reactions to the utility troubles. Many people couldn’t travel to warmer, safer refuge or to grocery stores or to get the COVID-19 vaccines they had struggled to schedule.
February Winter Storm 2021
When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?
We do not know. State and city officials are urging patience — and telling Texans who have running water to boil it. Take whatever measures you need to prepare for several days without water. Officials in Austin, for example, said Feb. 19 that restoring water services would likely be a multiday process for the whole city. We have some resources here, but your best bet to find free water is to check your local media.
Will I get a large energy bill?
You shouldn’t immediately. Texas officials have signed an order temporarily preventing electricity providers from sending bills to residents. The order is a stopgap measure to give officials time to address a spike in some residents' bills. Officials also signed an order to stop utility providers from cutting off service to residents who haven’t paid a bill. Read more here.
How can I get updates?
Sign up for news updates from us by texting “hello” to 512-967-6919 or visiting this page.
I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?
When the state’s electrical grid operator began implementing rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. CT on Feb. 15, these were intended to be a temporary measure to deal with an extreme winter event.
Instead, some Texans are going without power for much longer, facing days without electricity instead of the originally planned 45 minutes at a time
The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state’s power grid could not keep up.
Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?
Yes, Texas has its own power grid run by an agency called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The history is long, but the short version is: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. But Texas’ utilities do not cross state lines. ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.
Note that Texas is not all on this same power grid. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.
I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?
No. The lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans.
An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on February 16 that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.
“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
How can I stay warm? How can I help others?
The National Weather Service encourages people to close blinds and curtains, gather in one room if possible and close doors to others, and stuff towels in the cracks under the doors. Wear loose-fitting layers of warm, lightweight clothing. Eating snacks and staying hydrated will help to warm the body up. Some cities are providing warming centers and transportation as needed — find local resources here. If you have resources or are able to offer financial donations, find nonprofits who are helping people here.
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It could leave a lasting bruise on the Texas exceptionalism political and business leaders like to brag about. What happened over the last four or five days, as the state became the subject of national and international pity and head-shaking, could undo years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.
It makes it a lot easier on the competition. Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we're rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn't poison us. Austin even closed a hospital and moved the patients when they couldn't rely on heat or water.
In a hospital.
The light regulation here has been a key part of the business pitch. But the dark side was showing this week in the failures of our basic infrastructure.
Electricity here is cheaper than many other places, and it works, most of the time. But at some point, the corners we cut to keep electricity prices low turn into reliability problems. The cost-cutting shows up in the quality of the product. And the product, when it comes to infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life and the economy.
It's a great state with a faltering state government. The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them.
Next week, temperatures will warm and legislators can take off their mittens and start waggling their fingers at House and Senate committee hearings, a customary act of umbrage and self-preservation that directs our attention to potential bad guys and away from the current and former legislators who set the policies that helped put us in this position.
ERCOT’s board and executives will be in the spotlight, now that Gov. Greg Abbott has flipped that switch. Some of the electricity generators who weren’t able to provide the power expected from them this week will be on hand. Electric utilities that actually decide which (and whose) power stays on during a partial blackout will be there. The governor’s three appointees to the Public Utility Commission, which oversees electricity regulations, will be there, probably joined by the Texas Railroad Commission’s three elected members. The RRC regulates the oil and gas industry.
Expect a real show. All of the shaming and blaming could even make some of us feel better.
But the end of that show is the wrong time to stop paying attention; it’s the time to start. The Legislature, presented with a similar situation after a freeze knocked out power to 3.2 million Texans in 2011, faced the same set of questions then that it faces now. Their inaction then set the stage for what happened in Texas this week.
As they did then, lawmakers will decide whether to do something. They might order the companies that generate and transmit electricity to secure their systems against weather like this. It’s not tricky technology — it’s in use in the parts of the country that are accustomed to harder winter weather than we saw this week. But it can be expensive, which is one big reason Texas doesn’t require it.
That’s one of the pressure points here: Whether it’s better to keep prices cheap — cutting out sometimes necessary costs like weatherization — or to require those things so Texas doesn’t leave millions of homes and businesses out in the cold like it did this week.
State lawmakers and regulators cut a corner, saving millions for some of the really large users of electricity — manufacturers, chemical plants and other large enterprises — to keep the ones that are already here happy, and to attract new ones, complete with jobs, that aren’t in Texas yet but might be interested in coming here.
Low energy prices attract business, and Texas has made a name for itself as a fast-growth, pro-business state.
Lawmakers have a fresh chance to decide whether cutting this particular corner, swapping light regulations and low energy costs for the risk of leaving Texans exposed to the harshest winter weather, is worth it.
If the public keeps paying attention, it’s probably not. If the public leaves the details to legislators and the usual crowd of special interests, the state might do what it did last time: Waggle those fingers, write a report and put the matter away until it gets cold again.
That’s how politics works.