Texas Blackout: Oopsie…We forgot about the weather and people died
The 2021 Texas Blackout changed my perspective a bit. Usually I worry about a long-term national-scale power outage caused by a cyberattack, physical attack, EMP, CME, etc., and I worry about how unprepared we are as a nation for one of these horrific events. However, as we have learned from the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 and now the 2021 Texas Blackout, the grid can just collapse on its own because the electric utility industry and the regulators drop the ball.
Starting in the early hours of Monday February 15, 2021, my family went without power for over 36 hours and the temperature dropped down to zero degrees in our part of Texas. We were prepared, but many people in Texas went for much longer that that. People in general were not prepared. Over 4 million customers in Texas lost power. And that number is “customers” which may be a family or business. So many more than 4 million people suffered with no power in subfreezing temperatures .
The “rolling blackouts” never rolled and people became desperate. People were hospitalized and died trying to stay warm. Some examples:
- At Least 10 People Have Died As Texas Faces A Brutal Winter Storm And Massive Power Outages
- Winter storm in Texas: At least 10 deaths linked to statewide disaster
- Texas family hospitalized after using charcoal grill to heat apartment
Why did this collapse of the Texas grid happen? The blame game is already starting. Fingers are already pointing. One group is blaming the generation plants, one group is blaming the push to renewables. And one Texas Mayor is even blaming the citizens for whining about being cold. (You just can’t make this stuff up.) One fact: multiple generation types failed – fossil fuel and renewable. It wasn’t just one failure. It was a cascading failure. A failure that was minutes away from becoming a months long catastrophic blackout.
Ultimately it comes down to this: The Texas grid was unprepared for a known incoming bad weather event.
This makes little sense to those of us who pay an electric bill. We know from OE-417 Data on electric disturbance events that over half of all electric disturbances are caused by the weather. We know this. We know there are going to be winter storms. We know there are going to be polar vortexes. We knew this one was coming!
In fact, the Texas grid saw this one coming significantly ahead of time. On February 11, 2021 ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) put out a press release stating: “Extreme cold weather expected to result in record electric use in ERCOT region.” ERCOT knew this cold weather was coming week before it got here – and that it would impact demand significantly.
After the Texas grid collapsed (and 4 million customers were literally left in the cold), almost every reference started with “due to the unprecedented cold temperatures…” as if we were surprised by the temperature. ERCOT is actually blaming the cold weather for their failure to manage supply and demand. And was this event unprecedented? No, the same thing happened on February 2, 2011. According the the Texas Tribune:
“What happened yesterday to cause the rolling power blackouts across Texas? A chain reaction of problems involving the state’s coal and gas appeared to be the cause — and wind plants were having trouble, too.”
This was written on February 3, 2011, but it could have been written in February 16, 2021. (Read the federal report on the 2011 Texas blackout HERE.) To quote the great philosopher Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Everyone saw this cold snap coming, and yet the Texas grid buckled just like it did in 2011 – although arguably worse this time.
And people died.
Texas Grid Collapse Impacted Other Critical Infrastructures.
Let us not forget that the electric grid is the lynch-pin of every other critical infrastructure. Presidential Policy Directive 21 (PPD-21) “Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience” (February 12, 2013) identifies 16 critical infrastructure sectors vital to the national security of the United States. these 16 critical infrastructure sectors are:
- Chemical Sector
- Commercial Facilities Sector
- Communications Sector
- Critical Manufacturing Sector
- Dams Sector
- Defense Industrial Base Sector
- Emergency Services Sector
- Energy Sector
- Financial Services Sector
- Food and Agriculture Sector
- Government Facilities Sector
- Healthcare and Public Health
- Information Technology Sector
- Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector
- Transportation Systems Sector
- Water and Wastewater Systems Sector
PPD-21 identifies the energy sector as uniquely critical due to the enabling functions it provides across all 16 critical infrastructure sectors. PPD-21 refers to this as an “enabling function” since all 16 critical infrastructures depend on power. When we lose power, we lose water. We lose sewer. We lose medical. We lose communications. Our food infrastructure is impacted. Everything we need to survive disappears when we are unplugged from the electric grid.
So what happened when the Texas electric grid collapsed? We started to see impacts on our other critical infrastructures. For example, one of the critical infrastructures is “Water and Wastewater Systems.” Another is “Food and Agriculture.”:
- Nearly 12 million Texans now face water disruptions
- Millions of Texans struggle for drinking water following deadly winter storm
- Galveston now under Stage 5 water restrictions after major water line breaks in homes, businesses across island
- Multiple cities in North Texas under a boil water order as power outages continue
- Texas city forced to shut off water due to winter storm
- Several Central Texas cities issue boil water notices
- WATER: First no power, now water problems mount across Central Texas
- Inside One Texas City’s Struggle to Keep Power and Water Running
- Lack of water forces Texas firefighters to watch house burn
- Texans running out of food as weather crisis disrupts supply chain
- Texas Livestock Industry Reels From Storm, Outages
[Personal Observation: I went on a recon in the early morning of February 18, 2021 and the local gas stations are out of gas. In Texas? Really? Update: Morning of February 19, 2021 – local gas stations still out of gas. Update February 22, 2021 – one week after the grid collapse. Gas stations still running out of gas and not getting enough deliveries. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the pictures.]
[Personal Observation: I went to Kroger’s in Fort Worth in the evening of February 18, 2021. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the pictures.]
What if this happened on a larger scale? What if this happened for a longer period? If we were not prepared for a known incoming weather event, are we prepared for a large scale cyberattack? Are we prepared for a coordinated physical attack? Are we prepared for a major space weather event?
The 2021 Texas blackout does not inspire confidence that we are ready for more catastrophic events than a cold snap.
We need to fix this.
The electric utility industry (which has ONE JOB) has failed us and our politicians who take their lobbying and campaign contributions have failed us. In Texas, ERCOT has failed us. Elsewhere, in the country the regulatory regime (i.e., Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC)) has failed us. We need to hold the industry, the regulators and the government accountable for this disaster, this suffering and any related deaths. I might point out that this is a disaster which may prove minor compared to the next one.
Why are we allowing this to happen? No excuses. We need action. We need to secure the grid.
Top Photo Credit: PowerOutage.us
February 2021 Blackout Investigations:
- U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing on Texas Blackout:
- FERC/NERC Investigation/Tech Conference:
- State of Texas:
February 2011 Blackout Comparison: It is very useful to compare the February 2011 blackout to the February 2021 blackout. Below are some authoritative resources on the 2011 Blackout:
- FERC Report on Outages and Curtailments During the Southwest Cold Weather Event of February 1-5, 2011
- NERC February 2011 Southwest Cold Weather Event
- ERCOT Review of February 2, 2011 Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) Event
- Texas Senate Hearing February 15, 2011: Lack Of Winterization Led To Blackouts
- (News Release) https://www.senate.texas.gov/news.php?id=20110215a&lang=en
- Joint Hearing: Senate Committee on Business & Commerce, Senate Committee on Natural Resources (Part I)
- Joint Hearing: Senate Committee on Business & Commerce, Senate Committee on Natural Resources (Part II)
- Press Report: Senators Express Incredulity at Rolling Blackouts Hearing
Senator Bob Hall and Michael Mabee discuss the Texas blackout with Frank Gaffney on Securing America.
Pictures of Kroger’s Grocery Store in Fort Worth, TX on February 18, 2021
No Gas In Texas? Really?