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3 reasons Texas and Austin don't have enough power

As if 2020 and 2021 haven't handed us enough challenges, now Texas is in the grip of a statewide power shortage that has left millions to fend off the bitter cold without electricity.

It's a Texas-sized problem, transcending individual cities and towns like Austin, the other big cities and the smaller Texas communities. Austin Energy told customers to expect rolling blackouts on Sunday designed to control the city's power burden during the winter storm. Two days later, many homes have found themselves without power for over 30 hours.

Solutions will have to come from the state level, especially the power grid operator Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT, according to energy experts interviewed for this story.

Too much demand + too little supply + isolated power grid = the situation we're in now.

  1. High demand. It's cold outside. Really, really cold. Historic low temps, sustained over a period of days is affecting all 268,597 square miles of the Lone Star State. If the weather was not as cold, or didn't last as long, or was only impacting parts of the state, there wouldn't be a problem.
  2. Inadequate supply. Texas is not generating enough of its own power right now. Three main components of this:
    • Frozen wind turbines. West Texas wind turbines are frozen. Their blades are not turning and they're not generating power, despite mostly unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem by spraying de-icing solution from helicopters. That's not a knock on wind power or renewables, it's just a current fact that knocks a significant portion of Texas's current power generating ability offline. ERCOT's data shows wind power typically accounting for 25% of the state's total, and much of that is West Texas wind that's now producing zero.
    • Routine winter maintenance. Texas builds its energy system to handle big summer peak loads when the brutal heat sets in and millions of people are blasting their A/C. Coal and natural gas plants that come online periodically to supply power when needed all require routine maintenance. That work is often scheduled in the winter, in order to be prepared for summer peaks. So, much of the "peak power" generating capacity the state needs right now is not available. ERCOT's CEO Bill Magness said Tuesday morning that 10% of the state's power plants are offline.
    • Bitter cold. Multiple days of freezing temperatures cause problems in the gas fields and make the fuel more difficult to extract. These temps also disrupt some of the "peak power" plants that should be operating, especially the older ones—some dating to the mid-century— that are water-cooled and can't operate with frozen pipes.
  3. Isolation. Texas can't get significant amounts of power from other states because we're literally a "power island," with our own grid that barely connects to others. Power-wise, we're fully quarantined from the states around us. The interconnections between the Texas grid and Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Mexico are so few and so paltry that it's not technically possible to push a significant amount of power into Texas. There's less than one gigawatt of interconnect capacity, which is less than 1% of the power Texas needs right now.
All of these factors working together create a critical infrastructure failure that's devastating the state. Homes cold and dark for days in sub-freezing temps. Businesses shut down. First responders, health care workers, truckers, food service and other critical workers not able to operate.
A major power outage like the one being experienced is not unprecedented in Austin. In 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published a report titled "Outages and Curtailments During the Southwest Cold Weather Event of February 1-5, 2011." In the report, they identified that a primary cause of energy loss came from facilities or reserve energy that "either tripped, was derated, or failed to start." Despite having adequate reserves on paper, ERCOT failed to account for power generating units that could—and did—fail due to the severe cold weather conditions.

Despite recommendations made in that report of the 2011 incident, Austin residents find themselves on the receiving end of infrastructural mistakes. In response to the latest power shortage, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott informed the public on Tuesday that the reform of ERCOT is now an emergency item this legislative session, so the "state never experiences power outages like this again."

With no simple solution, the immediate problem can't be entirely solved until temperatures return to normal.

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