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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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Austin power outages could last through Tuesday - austonia ›
- Photos: Winter storm brings power outages, snow to Austin - austonia ›
- Abbott issues disaster declaration preparing for severe weather ... ›
- Arctic Austin: how to protect your home in freezing weather - austonia ›
- Austin faces third day without power, pipes bursting - austonia ›
- ERCOT: Restored power is contingent upon milder weather - austonia ›
- Austin Energy restores some power—but not for long - austonia ›
- Water conservation is now Austin's 'immediate priority' - austonia ›
- Texas gov. orders natural gas suppliers not to export supply - austonia ›
- Natural gas outage affects 300 East Austin homes - austonia ›
- Austin sees some power return amid water & natural gas crises - austonia ›
- ERCOT: Controlled outages over after Texas weather emergency - austonia ›
- Austin Energy reduces power outages by nearly two-thirds - austonia ›
- Texas power crisis lessens amid weather emergency - austonia ›
- Austin faces 'multi-day' water crisis after winter weather - austonia ›
- Texas tough: how 32 Austinites are weathering the storm - austonia ›
- Gov. Greg Abbott brings more resources to the state after ERCOT failure - austonia ›
- Austin's remote workforce faces winter storm repairs, outages - austonia ›
- Five ERCOT leaders resign amid power outage controversy - austonia ›
- Tesla is building a massive battery in Texas after outages - austonia ›
- Austin Energy earned $54M in net revenue during winter storm - austonia ›
- What Texas' deep free means for Austin Energy's renewables plan - austonia ›
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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