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Energy & Environment

2 Million Texas Households Without Power As Massive Winter Storm Drives Demand For Electricity

Some utility companies that deliver electricity to Texans are telling customers to expect power outages through Monday night and potentially into Tuesday.

Interstate 35 near Stassney Lane in Austin was blanketed with snow on the morning of Feb. 15. A major winter storm affected the entire state of Texas.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Interstate 35 near Stassney Lane in Austin was blanketed with snow on the morning of Feb. 15. A major winter storm affected the entire state of Texas.

Updated Feb. 16, 2021 at 9:06 a.m.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • 2 million Texas households are without power
  • Houston mayor seeks answers on how outages were handled
  • Dallas urges residents to reduce their electricity usage
  • Texas cities open emergency shelters
  • 100,000 Fort Worth residents receive boil water notice
  • State sending extra resources to help across Texas

The state's electric grid operator lost control of the power supply Monday morning as 2 million Texas households didn’t have heat or other electric appliances working at home as a massive winter storm delivered freezing temperatures across the state.

When the state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, began implementing rolling blackouts at 1:25 a.m. Monday, the outages were intended to be implemented on a rolling basis — up to 45 minutes per affected area, according to the ERCOT.

Instead, some Texans in Austin, Houston and other cities were without power into Monday afternoon and all morning since even before ERCOT called for the rolling blackouts. And some companies that deliver electricity to households and businesses have told customers to expect to be without power through at least the end of the day as they work to restore power generating units that went offline during the storm.

"Unfortunately, if you are a customer who is currently experiencing an outage, you should be prepared to be without power for at least the rest of the day," tweeted CenterPoint Energy. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said midday Monday that more than 1.1 million CenterPoint customers were without power.

Jackie Sargent, the general manager for Austin Energy, said Monday afternoon that based on information from ERCOT, the local power outages could extend into Tuesday afternoon.

"We are aware of where our system is at and we are operating with the constraints and the direction of ERCOT," she said. "ERCOT has said that based on what they are looking at that, this situation is likely to continue through the night and possibly into the afternoon tomorrow. So it depends on what we do as consumers in managing our load, our consumption of electricity."

The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state's energy system could not keep up.

Some of the energy sources powering the grid were knocked out by the inclement weather, most of which were facilities run by gas, coal or nuclear energy.

"Most of the plants that went offline during evening and morning today were fueled by one of those sources," said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at ERCOT.

Wind turbines, which provide a much smaller source of energy for the state's power grid, were iced over and also out of commission.

The storm that hit Texas is rare for both its scope and its intensity. On Sunday, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for all 254 counties. Cities like Dallas and Austin had temperatures in the single digits Monday morning. Close to the coast in places like Houston and Corpus Christi, the weather was in the teens.

ERCOT announced Sunday night that it had set a winter record for power demand, reaching 69,150 megawatts between 6 and 7 p.m. ERCOT said Monday morning that 30,000 megawatts of power generation had been forced off the system. The grid operator also said it would provide an update at 10:30 a.m. Central time Monday.

The storm has shut down much of the state. Numerous roads are iced over, many schools have closed and, at Gov. Greg Abbott's request, President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency declaration across the state. Despite Abbott’s request, Turner, the Houston mayor, said the state needs to take responsibility for what happened.

"The state must own and explain the magnitude of these power outages across the State," Turner tweeted Monday.

Abbott didn’t publicly address the widespread outages until 1:29 p.m., more than 12 hours after hundreds of thousands of Texans began losing power.

"Many power generation companies’ facilities froze overnight and shut down their ability to generate power," Abbott tweeted. "They are working to get power back on line."

Mitchell Ferman and Sami Sparber

Houston mayor seeks answers on how outages were handled

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said that while the situation with this weekend's winter storm was unprecedented, it should spark a debate on Texas' electric resiliency.

"When this is all over, we will need to have a conversation — a serious conversation — about why we are where we are today," Turner said Monday at a news conference. "These are not rolling blackouts. These are power outages at a huge unprecedented scale."

According to CenterPoint Energy, around 1.2 million users in the Houston area are without power. Turner also said that the number of outages could increase as temperatures go down in the evening and that they could last even until tomorrow. By Monday afternoon, that number had gone down to 1 million.

On Monday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said about 70,000 of the outages in the area were because of weather damage and that CenterPoint was working to restore power to those homes.

"The bottom line is that neither CenterPoint nor I can give you an estimate on when the power will come back on," she said. "As much as we wish it wasn't so, things will likely get worse until they get better."

Hidalgo also said a Harris County Health Department, where 8,400 of Moderna vaccines were being stored, had a power outage around 2 a.m. Monday and its background generator failed. County officials were able to distribute 5,410 of vaccines to several area hospitals, the county jail and Rice University before they could spoil, she said. The rest of the vaccines were stored again after receiving guidance from Moderna representatives, Hidalgo said. — Elvia Limón

"This is a very serious emergency"

In Dallas, County Judge Clay Jenkins declared a state of emergency and asked nonessential businesses to delay their opening or start times until 10 a.m. Tuesday. The order also asks manufacturing and industrial businesses that "use electricity in their operation or processes" to close on Tuesday.

Jenkins also strongly urged residents to set their thermostats to no more than 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This is a very serious emergency," Jenkins said during a Monday night press conference. "My full focus is on this emergency and yours should be too."

A spokesperson for the power company Oncor said most of the power outages in Dallas-Fort Worth have been due to excess demand. "That increased demand and that load has resulted in some of our transformers having equipment failures just because they're having to run like it's a 100-plus degree summer day," the spokesperson, Kerri Dunn, said.

Dunn did not say when Dallas-area residents would get their power back, noting the overnight winter weather might complicate efforts. — Elvia Limón

Texas cities open emergency shelters

Several cities across the state have opened emergency shelters for residents without homes. In Dallas, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center opened on Friday to 300 people and will remain open as long as temperatures are below freezing, reports NBC DFW.

On Monday, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said residents could call 817-392-1234 to be directed to one of the city's warming centers. Residents can also find transportation help by calling that number.

The George R. Brown Convention Center and Lakewood Church in Houston opened as warming centers Sunday. Houston set up 500 beds inside the convention center and allowed pets. But on Sunday night, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a tweet that the center was nearing capacity. Turner said residents who need access to a warming center should call 311 or 211 to be directed to one of the several shelters in the city.

In Austin, a warming center opened on Saturday at Palmer Events Center. Austin officials said single adults in need of shelter should report to the Central Library and that families should go to the Downtown Salvation Army Shelter, reports KVUE. Several community organizations in San Antonio are stepping up to help unsheltered residents with a place to stay, food or supplies to keep warm. — Elvia Limón

100,000 Fort Worth residents receive boil water notice

Around 100,000 of Fort Worth residents are under a boil water order after a water treatment plant experiencing multiple power outages on Monday, reports WFAA. The Eagle Mountain Water Plant and raw water pump station has been without power for more than two hours. The boil order is expected to last until at least midday Wednesday. Even after water service returns, officials will need 24 hours to test the water.

Meanwhile, the city of Kyle in Central Texas is asking residents to stop all water use until further notice. According to the city's Twitter account, Kyle is close to "running out of water supply" after power outages at the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and locally. — Elvia Limón

State sending extra resources to help across Texas

As Texans across the state grapple with a lack of power amid freezing temperatures, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday said that he and the Texas Military Department have deployed National Guard troops across the state to help take people to one of the 135 local warming centers set up across Texas.

Other state agencies are also deploying resources and personnel to help local officials clear roadways and assist essential workers, including health care professionals and power grid workers.

Among the resource deployments Abbott announced:

  • 3,300 troopers and 3,300 patrol vehicles from the Texas Department of Public Safety
  • 90 personnel members and 28 high-mobility vehicles from the Texas Military Department
  • 585 personnel members, 531 4×4 vehicles, one aircraft and nine K9 teams from Texas Parks and Wildlife
  • 2,314 personnel, 695 snowplows and 757 4×4 vehicles from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Drivers urged to stay home as road crews plan work

State transportation officials are urging Texas drivers to stay home as crews work to clear snow and ice from roads.

Low temperatures and snow accumulation resulted in freezing on roadway surfaces across the state, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation said in an email Monday afternoon.

"TxDOT crews have been treating roads across the state since early last week, and now we are plowing snow and once snow is removed, we can start to spot treat again," Ryan LaFontaine said. "This weather event is expected to continue so we urge drivers to stay home and exercise patience as we try to clear roadways safely." — Sami Sparber

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