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Power Outages and Winter Storms Continue. Has Texas Learned from Past Freezes?

In February, the winter storm hit North Texas so hard that snow covered the ground and the power in our house went out. Our family gathered in the living room, toasting hot dogs in the fireplace and regretting the loss of our gas stove.

In February, the winter storm hit North Texas so hard that snow covered the ground and the power in our house went out. Our family gathered in the living room, toasting hot dogs in the fireplace and regretting the loss of our gas stove. When night fell, the winter storm hadn’t relented and the power outages continued, so we drove as carefully as we could to my grandmother’s house to spend the night somewhere warm and with wifi. 

That was, of course, February, 2011, almost exactly ten years ago. Truly extreme winter storms don’t hit Texas terribly often, but when they do, it can be devastating. During 2021’s historically cold storm, in fact, the state is faring even worse than they were in 2011. 

In fact, after 24 hours of power outages, late Tuesday afternoon, Collin County Judge Chris Hill's office announced that it was far from over.

"Anyone who has had little or no power in the last 24 hours should expect the same for at least the next 48 hours," he said. "Even those who have been blessed to have power over the last 24 hours should be prepared in case their power also goes out."

The 2021 Winter Storm

Oncor initiated rolling power outages during the night Sunday, but they immediately turned into hours long stretches. As night fell, power didn’t return. Everywhere on social media, people try to discern why some have power and others don’t: measuring proximity to hospitals, schools, and fire departments. 

Tuesday afternoon, the city of Anna joined Tarrant county and Wylie in issuing a boil warning, due to the “unreliable flow of electricity over the last 24 hours” as “a precaution against contamination.” 

Though more than 4 million Texans are without steady power, on Tuesday afternoon, the Dallas Morning News reported that Texas’ power grid operators “can’t predict when outages might be over.” 

As residents without power grow more incensed and afraid, Oncor continues to deliver bad news. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins tweeted that transformers are breaking, while the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) predicts that electric output from wind and solar power sources, and thermal generation will give them more electricity. But they can’t say how much, or how soon.

At DFW airport, temperatures descended to -2°F degrees at the airport, the coldest it’s been in 70 years. The only time it’s been colder was 1899.

The 2011 Freeze 

In 2011, a winter storm pushed temperatures in Dallas down into the teens for five consecutive mornings. Just like today’s freeze, in 2011, roads clogged with ice, sleet and snow, the temperature dropped, and some power facilities went offline. We received the same advice: lower heaters to 68 degrees, close shades, unplug non-essential appliances, and do your part to conserve energy. 

Between February 1-4, 2011, 210 ERCOT generators suffered either an outage or a failure to start. In total, the event affected 4.4 million households in Texas. 

Six months later, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a report and offered recommendations for winterizing. These were non-mandatory, but they hoped to prevent exactly what is happening now.

“Going into the February 2011 storm, neither ERCOT nor the other electric entities that initiated rolling blackouts during the event expected to have a problem meeting customer demand,” the investigation found. “They all had adequate reserve margins, based on anticipated generator availability. But those reserves proved insufficient for the extraordinary amount of capacity that was lost during the event from trips, derates, and failures to start.”

They also found that even though generators and natural gas producers received accurate weather forecasts, they still suffered severe losses of capacity.

Furthermore, generators and natural gas producers reported that they already had winterization procedures in place to prevent power outages. "The poor performance of many of these generating units and wells suggests that these procedures were either inadequate or were not adequately followed,” investigators concluded.

They also noted that another bad freeze had been in 1989. At that time, generators failed. Following an investigation, officials offered non-mandatory recommendations on winterizing generators. 

“Over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011,” the report stated. 

Those generators failed again ten years later.

Preparing for 2031

On an episode of the Y’all-itics podcast on Monday, Dr. David Tuttle, a research associate with the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said that there is always more to learn from these events. In six months, there will be a new report to study, just like the one issued in 2011, with new suggestions on what we can do better.

“We’ll find when reports come out, in the middle of the summer, that there were things that could have been done better,” he said. Likely, officials will offer recommendations. But change, he adds, comes at a high cost. Typically, cost is the major reason why power companies in Southern, typically warm climates wouldn't fully winterize generators. There are over 600 generators in Texas; fully winterizing them all would cost millions.

However, this time, the freeze is even harsher. The power outages are longer, and people are in serious trouble, without even taking into account to ongoing pandemic. On Tuesday, Gov. Abbott released a statement calling the state of affairs in Texas unacceptable. 

“Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather,” he said. “Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and find long-term solutions.”

On Monday night, as people without power braced themselves, the Texas Public Utility Commission allowed ERCOT to modify pricing models.

“Energy prices should reflect the scarcity of the supply. If customer load is being shed, scarcity is at its maximum, and the market price for the energy needed to serve that load should also be at its highest,” the order stated.

Once we weather the storm, we'll face the same question we faced in 2011. And in 2010, and in 2008, 2006, 2003, 1989, and 1983. How much do we want to pay to protect ourselves in the case of rare events?

Warming Stations

• Anna High School, open overnight.

• First Baptist Church of Farmersville, open overnight. Call 972-782-6141.

• Islamic Center of Frisco (11137 Frisco Street).

Crosspoint Church (2101 South Stonebridge Drive). Call 972-562-2200.
Salvation Army (600 Wilson Creek Parkway), open overnight. Call 214-945-4637.
McKinney Boyd High School, open overnight.
Roy & Helen Hall Library (101 East Hunt Street), open until 6pm.
McKinney First United Methodist Church, open until 6pm.

City Church Melissa (2300 Vineyard Hill Lane), open until 6pm.

Murphy Community Center (205 North Murphy Road), open overnight.

Salvation Army (3528 14th Street), open overnight. Call 214-637-8254.
Grace Church Plano (3301 Preston Road), open overnight.
Sent Church (3701 West Spring Creek), open until 6pm.

Prosper Library & Town Hall, open overnight.

Richardson Fire Station #3 (500 Lookout Drive), open overnight.

New Hope Christian Church (1100 Brown Street).
Burnett Junior High School, open overnight.
First Baptist Church of Wylie, open overnight.

Find more here.