WEATHER Power outages leaveAustinites in the dark and cold for days on end
Millions of Texans huddled for warmth beneath blankets and layers of winter clothes, lined up for hours outside of grocery stores to buy necessary supplies and melted snow for use in toilets as widespread power and water outages stretched on for days across the state following a winter storm Feb. 14. Mandated outages began in Austin in the early morning hours of Feb. 15, when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s energy grid, directed local utility providers to take power oine in order to avoid a statewide blackout. At the peak of the outages, Austin Energy reported more than 200,000 customers without power, or over 40% of its users. Even before the lights came back on, residents left out in the cold were asking questions of public ocials about how the disaster happened. “This is unacceptable. Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and nd long-term solutions,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a Feb. 16 statement. State Rep. James Talarico, DRound Rock, said in a statement ERCOT must be held accountable, but “that’s not where the blame lies” and politicians will also need to answer tough questions. “People are burning furniture to heat their homes, melting snow to ush their toilets, risking carbon BY JACK FLAGLER & BEN THOMPSON
monoxide poisoning to protect their children. If Texas was a country, we would call it a ‘failed state,’” Talarico said in the statement Feb. 17. What went wrong Since 1970, ERCOT has managed the power grid that covers most of Texas. It adjusts prices for power sup- ply, making sure supply and demand are in balance to deliver power to customers. According to CEO Bill Magness, ERCOT made preparations for the winter weather and had a plan. “I don’t think there was any underestimation of the seriousness of this storm,” he said. What did surprise ERCOT was the signicant amount of energy supply that became unavailable the night of Feb. 14. Winterization eorts that were sucient for previous storms were not enough this time, as wide-ranging issues from ice on wind turbines to natural gas plants that could not oper- ate due to cold temperatures caused a signicant shortage. Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a chemical engineering professor and chief energy ocer at the University of Houston, said he believes the state’s reliance on market conditions to manage supply and demand is partially responsible for the lack of power, given providers’ lack of incentive to begin production well in advance of a supply shortage. The shortages aected energy pro- viders of all types, and Krishnamoorti said there should have been a better
Lines wrapped around the back of the HEB store in the Mueller neighborhood Feb. 16. (Photos by Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Snow and ice covered Austin roads after winter storms the week of Feb. 14.
Emergency services were at capacity for days responding to distress calls.
plan in place. “We knew that it was going to get too cold for us to be able to generate enough wind, and there were turbine issues. ... That was not the big story,” he said. “I think [it was] the lack of preparation to get coal-red power plants, natural gas-red power plants [and] nuclear going, having adequate natural gas supply, and having that started ahead of time. Really a lack of preparation.” With so many power suppliers unable to deliver, ERCOT told local utilities across Texas to cut power. In years past, that conservation would be achieved through rolling black- outs, in which customers would lose power for minutes at a time before the outages rotated to others. However, locally, the demand constraints for Austin Energy were so severe that ocials said they were
unable to roll blackouts. The utility took as many users oine as it could without aecting critical infrastruc- ture such as hospitals, re stations and water utility facilities. If those measures were not taken, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said the whole system could have gone black. “That would take not just days to restore power but weeks, and even longer for some customers through- out the ERCOT footprint,” Sargent said. Power was mostly restored by Feb. 19, but thousands of Austin Water customers remained without service. As the water utility was working to restore service, director Greg Mesza- ros said residents should prepare for multi-day outages. Those who did have water were under a citywide boil notice as of press time.
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