Today is February 9th, and you are an employee of the state with a meeting to attend. A winter storm is right around the corner, and the board wants to be prepared. The meeting takes approximately two hours and twenty-eight minutes, but they only spend 40 seconds talking about the winter storm and precautions to take against extreme conditions. You are a board member of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and you have just let down your state.
Of course, how was ERCOT supposed to know that this winter storm would be particularly devastating, considering that its cause was a polar vortex? Polar vortexes are caused by natural random weather and human-made climate change. Such a combination is unpredictable, and even more so now that they are happening at a more rapid pace. The more and more often that polar vortexes occur, the more damage that they cause when they hit a place that is completely unprepared. As such, it is important to consider climate change’s roll in what happened in Texas.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Texas’s climate is changing. It has warmed one and a half degrees, and this warming has consequences. Average rainfall is increasing, but the soil is becoming drier and drier, and both are becoming much more intense. In addition, storms are said to become more severe and frequent, which is what made Uri so much more devastating.
“Humans have made an impact on the atmosphere for sure,” Sanjana Senthilkumar said, a college sophomore at Baylor University located in Waco, Texas.
For all the chaos that ensued afterwards, it is hard to believe that nobody knew what was coming.
“We were not expecting it to be nearly as bad as it was, so we did not buy too much extra food or anything.” Hattie White (12) from St. Steven’s Episcopal School located in Austin, Texas said.
The triad of causes for bad weather; unpreparedness, climate change, and improper government management, then met each other in the middle, and so the storm Uri commenced.
A Day by Day Breakdown of the Storm
The first sign that the storm was something to be worried about was the 130 car pile up on Interstate 35 in Fort Worth that occurred the morning of February 11th. The icy conditions, caused by the polar vortex, left six people dead and at least sixty five people hospitalized. This was even before the actual duration of the winter storm, which officially started February 13th.
School districts and roads began to close down, and they stayed shuttered over the next seven days. On February 15th, the temperature would hit record lows in Texas, but that was only the beginning of their worries. Rolling blackouts began that morning as ERCOT began to experience extreme electric load. The residents who were unlucky enough to lose heat, had to find ways to stay warm, which meant either rolling themselves in every blanket they can find, or moving into their cars to find some warmth. The National Guard also came out to conduct welfare checks.
The Tuesday that followed was particularly hard on ERCOT, as their failures became more apparent. Nearly four million people are out of power as of February 16, with much more numbers to join them. The death toll is on the rise, with more causes of death being attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Using grills, cars, and generators in search for more heat is risky, because it causes more carbon monoxide to fill the air. It’s known as the “silent killer” because it is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. At the same time, icy conditions continue to cause car crashes and disrupt traffic. And soon enough, another problem arises in the already desperate situation: water leaks.
Texans were now warned to not use water for drinking purposes, and were also called upon to keep faucets closed. Earlier, officials advised people to allow water to drip from faucets to prevent them from freezing, but the situation had become so dire that it was necessary to conserve instead.
On February 17th, ERCOT issued a statement in which the CEO explained that the issue was simply a lack of energy. But, because ERCOT controlled power outages at the beginning of the crisis, Texas was not in a complete blackout; in fact, the CEO claimed that they had averted certain catastrophe. These power outages also led to burst pipes in homes without power. Colleges suffered as well, as McMurray University to allow students to use pool water to flush toilets. Still, 3.4 million Texan households remained without power.
On the 18th, numbers for households without power were significantly better, but a reappearance of frigid temperatures slowed down recovery substantially. The main issue at that time was not necessarily the power outage, but rather the water system disruptions. Many systems were under a boil-water advisory and most reported broken and frozen pipes. It had gotten to the point at which people had started to melt snow to get clean drinking water.
“When people started losing power around us, we filled up our bathtubs [in case we lost our water],” White said.
On top of all this, food shortages began to plague the population as the food supply chain system began to break down. The full toll of the setbacks they were experiencing in the agriculture industry in Texas, due to extreme cold and ice, was finally settling in, and these delays would set Texas back significantly livestock-wise.
The 19th brought the resurgence of water issues. Nearly half of Texas continued to experience these issues, while at the same time, nearly 190,000 homes were still without power. The people of Texas were exhausted from the constant battle they waged against the weather, and it is understandable as to why.
Saturday morning came, and while the issues were still prevalent, most of the chaos had settled down. The aftermath is yet to come.
The people of Texas had seemingly struggled enough, until they were hit with another unexpected problem: electric bills. Since Texas’s electricity market is deregulated (no restrictions), there’s no way to stop price spikes. A mere couple of days after the brunt of the winter storm was over, Texas residents had to face incredibly high costs of electricity bills, when they weren’t even able to use electricity. Governor Abott and lawmakers have said that they would attempt to provide relief, but as of right now they have not done anything.
The role of elected officials came under criticism as well. An event that garnered a lot of public attention during the events was Ted Cruz’s attempt to leave Texas for Cancun, and the consequent backlash that led him to coming right back to Texas.
“He should’ve acted more responsibly, he knew what he was doing,” Sanjana Senthilkumar said.
Although his returning did not change much, his attempt to leave was detrimental to his public image. It also showed a bigger problem in Texas government management that was observed throughout the entirety of the winter storm.
The root of most of the problems though, was the failure of the powergrid. Nearly 90% of Texas’s grid is not connected to the national grid and is operated by ERCOT. Because of this, ERCOT is not regulated, and they have no requirement to comply with federal regulations. Since the electricity market in Texas is not regulated, the price of power is determined based on supply and demand, which is what caused much grief after the whole ordeal. Additionally, Texas insurance does not cover winter damages, because they never expected them. There was also an extreme economic fallout, as many industries had to take breaks during the weeklong period.
The ERCOT grid not being connected to the national grid also prevented Texas from receiving help from other states who were willing to transfer electricity to them. A lot of the electricity shortages could have been avoided, which could have in consequence prevented the water problems and food shortages. Further winterization of power generators, pipes, the grid, as well as having emergency power generation capacity could be additional risk management measures that Texas could take.
As climate change continues to fester, Texas and other parts of the country could have to take extra precautions to ensure that the next winter storm will not be as painful and devastating as this one.