Why hundreds of thousands of Texans lost power in another cold snap

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Power outages affected hundreds of thousands of Texans during a winter storm this week, reminiscent of deadly blackouts the state suffered during a 2021 cold snap. More than 400,000 customers were without power today as the icy storm that began Monday entered its final stretch.

However, this week’s blackouts played out very differently from the disaster of 2021. And thankfully, the ice storm is predicted to finally subside today. But it was another reminder of the work that remains to be done to strengthen Texas’ fragile network.

This week’s blackouts played out very differently from the disaster of 2021

The hashtag #TexasFreeze was trending again with scenes of vehicles skidding on icy roads and frozen trees destroying power lines. Fingers are also being pointed — misplaced blame on renewable energy, as well as understandable frustration among officials at their failure to prevent another round of massive power outages.

According to Governor Greg Abbott and the state’s grid operator, ERCOT, icing on tumbling tree limbs and power lines was the biggest threat this time. Many of the outages are centered around Austin, where 1,300 “individual incidents” caused outages, the Texas grandstand reports. “It’s like a whack,” Austin Energy spokesman Matt Mitchell told the Stand of repair efforts as ice continued to wreak havoc on infrastructure.

Utilities had “sufficient reserves and sufficient power,” Abbott said at a Jan. 31 news conference. And a supply and demand graph from the state’s grid operator similarly shows electricity generation capacity exceeding demand. The problem is getting that electricity to customers through garbled power lines.

It is a different scenario from the catastrophe that played out in February 2021. That deep freeze period was longer, colder and left millions of customers without power. The cold was extreme enough to literally freeze natural gas production, limiting the state’s power supply. The cold spell nearly cut natural gas production in half as the frozen liquid in wells, pipes and valves blocked the flow of gas.

As the cold hit just about every energy source, frozen natural gas infrastructure emerged as the biggest problem. Texas generates nearly half of its electricity from gas, and demand for fuel skyrocketed as people had to turn up the heat in their homes. In the end, hundreds of people died during the freezing weather.

While Texas escaped a power shortage this time around, there’s still plenty that can be done to protect the power grid from increasingly extreme weather. Some power lines can be buried to make them less vulnerable to wind, ice and falling tree limbs – although it’s an expensive solution that carries the risk of making damaged lines more difficult to repair. And unlike other states, most of Texas doesn’t connect to other regions’ networks to share energy.

In another severe winter-weather scenario, Texans may have to curtail their electricity use or face another blackout, a November report from ERCOT found. “There can’t be enough power under the most extreme conditions,” Pablo Vegas, president and CEO of ERCOT, told the Stand in November. “That’s not acceptable.”

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