KSAT Explains: The ‘total breakdown’ of the Texas power grid

Episode 26 examines the February winter storm and power crisis that followed

SAN ANTONIO – In mid-February, Texas was hit with a winter storm unlike any we’ve seen in years. Record-low temperatures caused a deadly power crisis that left millions without heat or reliable water for days.

We later learned we were just four minutes and 37 seconds away from a catastrophic power grid crash that would have left the majority of the state in the dark for weeks.

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While we narrowly avoided that situation, the February storm was still devastating. At least 57 people died across the state — from hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, and in car crashes and house fires.

In the wake of that storm, Texans are left with a lot of questions. Who should take the blame? Will the fallout force state lawmakers to take action? Will we be prepared for the next winter storm?

The answers to a lot of these questions will take time. In this episode of KSAT Explains, we focus on what we do know, including how Texas’ power grid works and how this winter storm stacks up to past weather events.

We hope that by breaking down what we do know, you’ll better understand what happened during that storm that likely left you, or someone you know, in the dark. (Watch the full episode in the video player above.)

‘Something’s going to blow’: How the winter storm played out

By early Feb. there were warning signs of what was headed our way.

On Feb. 3, KSAT meteorologists said there was a possibility that Texas could get cold air as a result of a cold front in Canada. On Feb. 9, a frigid weekend was in the forecast. On Feb. 11, the Hill Country received its first batch of freezing rain. And late on the night of Feb. 14, heavy snow fell in San Antonio.

Families across the city stepped outside to watch the rare South Texas snowfall, unaware that this was the start of a catastrophic weather event for the entire state.

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(Images of the snow across the San Antonio area during February.)

In the early hours of Feb. 15, the state power grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, announced record-breaking electric demand because of the cold. Here in San Antonio, temperatures dropped to just nine degrees at 6:51 a.m.

The cold weather led to problems with energy generators. The issue impacted all types of energy.

“We had a crisis situation and ERCOT had to make those adjustments once they ran out of generation to bring online,” said Dr. Don Russell, a Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University’s Department of Electrical Engineering. “The only choice they had was to cut off some of the load.”

As most Texans slept, ERCOT instructed energy providers to begin rolling blackouts to protect the state’s power grid. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

As most Texans slept, ERCOT instructed energy providers to begin rolling blackouts to protect the state’s power grid. When Texans woke up the next morning, millions found themselves without power, including hundreds of thousands in San Antonio.

“Just as some generation becomes unavailable, everybody is getting up in their homes and flipping the heat on,” University of Houston Energy Fellow Ed Hirs said. “Just as you would have with adding that extra string of lights to your Christmas tree, something’s going to blow.”

It soon became clear that the blackouts across the state weren’t so much rolling blackouts as they were prolonged outages. Some people didn’t lose power at all, while others would end up losing it for days or longer. The rolling blackouts just weren’t cutting power demand enough, so some utilities had to cut off certain circuits completely.

With Texans already dealing with a lot, people across the state and the city began to lose water.

Water pump stations are on critical power circuits, but even those circuits were no longer safe from having their power pulled. San Antonio Water System executive Steve Clouse told KSAT that CPS Energy requested the water utility put pump stations on the blackout circuit, compounding the problem.

“When you take a complicated pump station offline, there is no button that turns that back on,” Clouse said. “When we were losing power at our pump stations, we just had no way we could restart them or get pressure back up to people before that power was lost again.”

SAWS issued a precautionary boil water notice on Wednesday due to the dip in water pressure.

After a rough week, warmer temperatures arrive on Friday, February 19, and the city begins to thaw out.

Eventually, boil water notices were lifted, roads reopened and power returned. But questions about what happened are just beginning to circulate.

“This was a total breakdown in Texas infrastructure,” Hirs said. “We lost power. We lost heat. We lost the fabric of society here and everything that runs our infrastructure.”

‘We like to think of ourselves as freewheeling folks’: Texas’ unique power grid, explained

In a few days, millions of Texans became familiar with the previously obscure ERCOT. Before the storm, a lot of people had no idea what ERCOT was. While many are now more familiar with the organization, there’s a lot to explain when it comes to ERCOT and how it operates.

Why is Texas’ power grid on its own?

Power in the United States is essentially divided up in three systems. And Texas stands on its own.

Texas’ power grid system is isolated by design. It was a decision made by state lawmakers in the 1990s to avoid federal regulations, like the Federal Power Act of 1935 that gave the feds regulatory power over interstate electricity transmission. So any power transmission that crossed state lines was put under the federal government’s jurisdiction.

“We don’t sell energy into interstate commerce,” Russell said. “We could remain our own thing and not have a bunch of federal regulation.”

What is ERCOT?

Across the country, there are different organizations that work as nonprofits that are responsible for making sure the power created by generators, and the supply to customers, is reliably maintained. For Texas, that’s ERCOT. It manages the flow of power to the majority of the state -- more than 26 million customers.

ERCOT is in charge of balancing the grid, making sure enough power is being produced to meet demand.

“Generation of electricity must occur at exactly the same time as consumption of electricity,” Russell said. “The total of everybody’s electricity has to always exactly meet the level of generation.”

This is because there is no mass storage for energy. Russell said that technology is under research.

ERCOT gets energy from generators across the state. But they don’t own the generation. The nonprofit just acts as a broker.

ERCOT power sources (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Why is Texas’ power grid deregulated?

In 1999, Texas lawmakers voted to deregulate the state’s energy market. The move broke up most monopoly energy providers and got rid of regulated energy rates.

That put an end to most utility monopolies in Texas. If you live in San Antonio and you’re thinking about the fact that CPS is your only power provider choice, there’s a reason for that. We explain below.

But for much of the state, deregulation meant competition. And those in favor believed it would mean lower energy prices.

But this theory isn’t necessarily true. And the experts we talked to said there are additional downsides to deregulation.

“Once you give up control of all the generation, once you allow a random list of producers to buy into the Texas generation market, you don’t have the ability to plan for and spend for these one-off kinds of events,” Russell said. “Many of those producers of that energy were not mandated to have certain reliability standards. It became more or less a free for all.”

Today, a long list of companies generate power using those various sources, and ERCOT buys the energy. The nonprofit then sells it to local utility companies. ERCOT acts as a marketplace for these transactions.

But who manages ERCOT?

The Public Utility Commission of Texas has oversight of the state grid. It regulates electric, telephone and water utilities, writing and enforcing the rules utilities have to abide by.

How does CPS fit into the puzzle?

San Antonio was not affected by the deregulation of the 1990s. Because CPS Energy is owned by the city, its part of the small percentage of the Texas energy market that was exempt.

This means that CPS still is a utility monopoly in San Antonio. And it’s a complex organization that wears several hats.

“CPS makes its power available in the statewide grid, they take back what they need and they sell the excess on the wholesale market, which ERCOT regulates,” said Greg Jefferson, business editor at the San Antonio Express-News.

CPS generates power, transmits and provides it to San Antonio customers. A portion of its revenue goes back the the city. And even though there’s only one choice for power in San Antonio, CPS Energy still has some of the lowest rates in the state.

“Part of that has to do with the fact that you don’t have investors who are demanding dividends,” Jefferson said.

CPS also is able to put surplus at the end of the year back into maintenance and operations.

“They basically will reinvest the money,” Jefferson said. “That’s how they keep rates low.”

This flies in the face of the theory that deregulation and competition equal lower prices.

“Basically what it boils down to was that if there’s competition, electricity will be cheaper,” Russell said. “That’s true for a can of beans in the grocery store, not always true with something like a large public infrastructure system.”

ERCOT sets prices for energy available on the grid, and those prices are subject to change during emergencies.

During the February winter storm, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity: $9,000/MWh. Before the storm, prices were less than $50/MWh.

ERCOT also has the authority to require utility companies to carry out rolling outages during emergencies.

“CPS Energy and every other utility in the state essentially answers to ERCOT and they coordinate with them to balance demand for electricity across the state with power generation,” Jefferson said. “To make sure when it’s really hot during the summer we have enough power to run our air conditioners. And conversely, during a winter emergency, we have enough power to heat our homes. Which didn’t happen.”

CPS Energy took heat in the winter storm’s aftermath. ERCOT was certainly blamed. And Texans are waiting to see if anyone will be held accountable.

“In Texas we like to think of ourselves as freewheeling folks,” Russell said. “Texas is known as the state with probably less of a kind of regulatory mindset of any state. Frankly, the consequences of that mindset and culture may be the biggest single cause of what happened in the big freeze.”

‘We can expect these events to happen occasionally’: Weather disasters & the climate change question

We know this winter storm had disastrous consequences that few of us have seen before. It felt unprecedented -- but was it?

Meteorologically speaking, the event broke, set and challenged several records. From Valentine’s Day though Feb. 18, areas around San Antonio saw six to eight inches of snow. The official 6.4 inches at the San Antonio International Airport made the 2020-2021 winter the third snowiest on record.

Feb. 14 - 18 snowfall in San Antonio. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

As far as temperatures go, it got as cold as nine degrees on Feb. 15. That’s tied for the eighth coldest recorded temperature ever in San Antonio. We also set five new record-low temperatures in one week, including that nine-degree day.

Feb. 14 - 20 San Antonio temperatures. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Another note about February’s winter storm: it could end up being Texas’ costliest weather-related disaster. The final tab for the winter storm could rival that of Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey in 2017 was a nearly $125 billion disaster for the Texas Gulf Coast and parts of southeast Texas. The final cost from the February 2021 winter storm won’t be known for some time.

Even before the storm, some have hypothesized that climate change could be affecting the polar vortex and leading to more cold snaps in Texas. But that’s not a theory that everyone has embraced.

“That’s still an active area of investigation,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate change expert who is a Texas A&M University professor. “They haven’t really convinced the scientific community that these are connected.”

Dessler said he’s hesitant to attribute the February storm to climate change because Texas has dealt with record cold before. And we’ll deal with it again in the future.

“Regardless of whether it’s connected to climate change or not, we can expect these events to happen occasionally,” Dessler said. “And then it just becomes a question of what we do about it.”

The answer, Dessler said, lies with the government.

“Texas is a state where we really believe in doing things ourselves,” Dessler said. “But there are certain things, certain problems, that only the government can solve.”

And if they don’t? Dessler said we’ll be facing another round of blackouts next time we have a really cold winter event.

Watch meteorologist Sarah Spivey explain the polar vortex in the video below:

‘Sometimes we have to get hit in the head twice before we wake up’

Experts agree that a winter storm like the one we saw in February will happen again. And preparing will require government intervention. So has the government done anything? The short answer: not really.

But there is a bill from 2015 that’s been getting a lot of attention recently.

Four years after another major winter storm that caused blackouts across Texas, House Bill 2571 was under consideration in the Texas House of Representatives. It would not have provided a strategy on how to deal with extreme weather. But it would have required the Public Utilities Commission of Texas to have a plan.

“It would require the state agencies to every two years come up with a strategic plan to figure out severe weather events, how to deal with them and also factor in climate change,” said Scott Braddock, editor of the Quorum Report, a longtime insider publication at the Texas Capitol.

Then-Democratic State Rep. Eric Johnson — now the mayor of Dallas — introduced the bill. HB 2571 had made it through committee and was on its third and final reading on the full House floor. This is something that is normally a good sign, according to Johnson, who recently talked about the matter on an episode of WFAA’s Y’all-itics podcast.

But as the vote for final passage in the House began, the bill’s fate took a turn.

Former Republican State Rep. Ron Simmons interrupts the vote just as it begins to announce that there’s been a mistake and the Republican Policy Committee was against HB 2571. Simmons was also recently a guest on the Y’all-itics podcast to give his side of the story. He said he realized the error a bit late, but felt he had to speak up.

Johnson said before that interruption the bill had bipartisan support. But after, it quickly failed pretty much along party lines.

Watch the video below to see how the final vote on HB 2571 played out.

Eighty-four Republicans ended up voting against the bill. Three broke ranks and voted for it, along with 44 Democrats. Few have probably given HB 2571 much thought since then until recently.

Now, there’s been talk of reintroducing the bill. And state lawmakers are trying to bring new bills as well. But will any of them stick? That’s yet to be determined.

“Sometimes we have to get hit in the head twice before we wake up,” Russell said. “The 2011 thing was the first time it was pretty bad, but not catastrophic. This one was really bad and catastrophic.”

Who will be held accountable?

The full scope of the winter storm fallout will take a while to play out. But there have been some consequences since February:

Through all of the chaos, pain and loss, there was good. Click the video below to see how neighbors stepped up to help neighbors in true San Antonio fashion.


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