Starting the day before Valentine’s Day 2021, Texas and its inhabitants suffered through the most brutal winter in the state’s memory, if not all of recorded history. Almost five months later, the Texas Department of State Health Services provided a final death toll as a result of the storm saying on July 14 that 210 people had perished due to the weather, with some later reports indicating that 237 people lost their lives as a result of the storm.
With almost a foot of snow having fallen as far south as Del Rio, near the U.S.-Mexico border, and areas to the north and east reporting over one-and-a-half times that amount, the state quickly became gridlocked. Transportation of virtually any sort was stopped completely, and the state’s inhabitants were forced to remain in place wherever they were.
To add to the chaos created by snow clogged roadways came the temperatures. Readings throughout the state reached single digits, including a reading of 8.7°F (-12.9°C) in Houston, on the Gulf of Mexico. These below-freezing temperatures remained for extended periods of time, up to 222 hours (9.25 days) in Dallas and 164 (6.8 days) in San Antonio.
These combined conditions led to a surge in power usage as Texans, not used to or intended for this type of weather, attempted to stay the elements from their homes and businesses. As 61% of Texas homes use electric heat, the Texas power grid was taxed heavily throughout the storm. Adding to the extremely unusual increase in usage was the fact that several power-generation facilities had been taken offline for routine maintenance procedures, which normally would not have created an issue.
Despite predictions as early as January that this storm could severely impact Texas, the state found itself ill-prepared for the events that unfolded. Governmental and regulatory agencies and organizations that are normally chastised for having overprepared for events found themselves woefully unprepared for this one.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) “operates the electric grid and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state.” In short, ERCOT directs where electricity is delivered through the state and who gets the electricity and when.
Admitting its lack of preparation, ERCOT announced just prior to the arrival of the storm that they would implement rolling blackouts through the state to make sure that the areas needing it most would receive the electricity. With blackouts initially advised to occur for four-hour stretches at a time, some areas encountered a lack of electricity for literally days at a time as the storm lingered. The lack of electricity drove temperatures in habitations near freezing, if not below, for extended periods of time. Once the air temperature drops below 70°F (21°C), a person’s chance of experiencing hypothermia increases exponentially.
With air temperature below 70°F (21°C), a person will generally experience the symptoms of hypothermia, specifically exhaustion to unconsciousness, within two to seven hours. All things being constant, the person can be expected to survive such a situation for two to four hours. As the temperature drops below that, the speed with which the symptoms appear increases substantially and the expected survival time drops dramatically. When the air temperature drops below 50°F (10°C), these statistics drop to 30 to 60 minutes for the onset of symptoms and survival of one to three hours.
Due to the extended blackouts, temperatures in many habitations dropped below 50°F (10°C) for extended periods of time, particularly if the building was only heated through electricity.
The danger to inhabitants did not just come from the dropping temperatures, though. Patients using oxygen concentrators, c-pap or bi-pap machines, ventilators, glucose monitors, heart monitors, or other electrically-powered devices were also put in jeopardy by the outages.
In response to the situation created by this storm and the lack of preparation performed beforehand, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 3, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed it into Law on June 8. The new law requires the state’s electricity infrastructure and power plants to prepare for extreme situations as were experienced in February. The bill provides for a fine of $1 million per day per offense in an effort to provide a financial incentive to prevent a recurrence of February’s events.
Even almost five months out, weather predictions are forecasting a similar even this coming Winter. Releasing its 2021-2022 Winter Outlook just last month, the Farmer’s Almanac predicts that Texans will be “chilled to the bone.” While only predicting “near normal precipitation,” the Almanac goes on to say, “late January may bring frigid and flaky weather like you experienced last winter” for those in the Southern Great Plains, including Texas and Oklahoma. They also bring an ominous warning by stating, “Hopefully, it won’t be as robust, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
Seemingly in spite of the outrage by electricity consumers from February’s catastrophe, action by the Texas State Government, and predictions of a similar Winter, the regulators in charge of Texas’ electrical grid admit that they remain unprepared. Further, they blame the Legislature and a loophole for allowing them to remain unprepared.
In recognition of the forecast for the upcoming Winter weather, Southside Matt had emailed ERCOT last week asking about preparations but has yet to receive a response other than a system-generated reply stating that they have received the inquiry and will respond in time.
Natural gas accounts for 51% of the electricity generation in Texas, and is governed by the Texas Railroad Commission.
With the next highest energy producer being wind at less than half of the production (24.8%), the utilization of natural gas in the state of Texas is vital. This resource was not fully available during the February Winter storm, with photos appearing in the media of service lines to the power plants frozen over. As such, the executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission appeared in front of the Texas Senate to provide an update on winterization projects.
Wei Wang, the executive director, indicated that weatherization projects had not yet been started or reached a status that would allow them to be considered as having been implemented. Citing language in S.B. 3 that was passed into Law, Wang indicated that the process could take until late 2022 and possibly into 2023 to be completed. Under the new law, a new committee is to be created to “map out the state’s energy infrastructure by September 2022.” Additionally, natural gas companies can essentially opt out of any winterization requirements by not declaring themselves to be “critical infrastructure,” an action that would be taken voluntarily by the gas companies without any requirement to declare themselves to be critical.
Stating to the Senate Committee that he “understand(s) the urgency,” Wang used the timeline of S.B. 3 to explain that the infrastructure may not be any better prepared for the upcoming winter than it was for February’s storm.
Despite the legislative intent to prepare the state’s energy grid and infrastructure against another catastrophic event, it seems that the process is following the letter rather than the spirit of the law. As the result, it is likely that, should the Farmer’s Almanac be correct, Texans can expect to see a repeat of their experience from earlier in the year.
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