Texas power outages: Why blackouts hit as temperatures fell

And why some are inaccurately blaming solar and wind for the massive outages.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
Oscar Gonzalez is a Texas native who covered video games, conspiracy theories, misinformation and cryptocurrency.
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Texas Power Outage

Texans are out of power thanks to a cold snap.

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Texas' power grid was on the verge of failure after a cold snap brought record low temperatures, snow and rolling blackouts across the state. Millions of Texans were without power, and some people have questioned why a state that produces the most power in the US is unable to keep the lights on. Misinformation about the blackout has also started to spread online, falsely putting the blame on wind and solar energy. 

Roughly 4 million people in Texas had to deal with outages for most of the week as power generators and natural gas pipes froze, crippling the state's production capabilities. This led the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state's power grid, to administer rolling blackouts to avoid a grid failure. ERCOT ended the emergency conditions Friday because no more outages were required.  

Here's what you need to know about the power outages in Texas.

What happened to the power in Texas?

This past weekend, a winter storm made its way into Texas, bringing freezing cold to the state. As temperatures began to dip into the teens Monday morning, power plant generators across the state started to freeze and went offline, leading to a significant decrease in energy production. At the same time, demand for power increased as people turned up the thermostat. 

Almost 50% of power generated by Texas comes from natural gas, with the other half divided among coal, wind, nuclear and solar. Because of the cold, however, gas can't even make its way from the ground through the pipes. ERCOT says 46,000 megawatts were offline as of Wednesday. One megawatt is enough to power roughly 200 homes a year. There are 70 to 80 power plants offline as of Wednesday, out of 680 across the state. Thermal energy -- natural gas, coal and nuclear -- made up 28,000 of those megawatts while wind and solar made up the other 16,000. 

"The ability for gas generators to produce, particularly at full output, was affected by the freezing impact on the natural gas supply," Bill Magness, ERCOT president and CEO, said during a livestream Wednesday. "So getting those resources back is the central solution to getting people their power back."

Approximately 40% of generators went offline due to the cold weather. The significant drop in power generated led to rolling blackouts across the state as ERCOT tried to keep a balance between the supply and demand in order to prevent a "catastrophic" blackout. This made the outage last much longer than ERCOT anticipated. 

As for prepping power plants for extreme cold to prevent generators from freezing, Dan Woodfin,  senior director of system operations for ERCOT, says there are national standards being considered, but they have yet to be mandatory. 

"It's voluntary guidelines for the individual generation companies to decide to do those things," Woodfin said. "They have financial incentive to be able to participate in the market to follow those [regulations] and stay online, but there's no regulation at this point." 

He went on to explain that in northern states, power generators are typically located in buildings, which help protect them in the winter. Texas, however, keeps generators outside in order to make full use of them in the summer months when energy demand is high with more homes using air conditioning. Having those generators indoors would cause an increase in heat and prevent them from being used at their full capacity. According to Woodfin, there are best practices to keep generators online during cold weather, but those were not sufficient with the extremely low temperatures. 

Texas has its own independent power grid and isn't connected to the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection grids covering the rest of the country. The state can draw power from neighboring states and Mexico, but the amount available is limited. It also didn't help that neighboring states were in need of all their electricity to keep up with demand.  

Audio of a Feb. 9 meeting of ERCOT officials suggested they may not have taken the winter storm as seriously as they could have, local news outlet KSAT-12 reported on Friday. During the two-hour and 28 minute meeting, the upcoming winter storm was discussed for less than 40 seconds, KSAT-12 said. ERCOT CEO Bill Magness responded, telling the outlet: "I think it was the first thing I mentioned when I started briefing the board ... there were certainly lots of communications from us, and if what I said indicated we weren't concerned, I really was just trying to notify the board that this is something we gotta keep an eye on because it's coming at us."

What's the deal with people blaming wind and solar?

Confusion over the cause of the blackouts began spreading on social media Tuesday, especially from state government officials. 

"The reason for blackouts is complex, but in summary: Texas took too many lessons from Cali, over-subsidized renewables, & pushed out baseload energy like natural gas," Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, tweeted Tuesday. 

A similar sentiment came from fellow GOP Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson who said on Facebook on Tuesday, "Our reliance on renewable energy needs to be revisited IMMEDIATELY."

But on Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, pointed to freezing natural gas as part of the problem. 

"The reason why power is not available for your viewers is because the power generators froze up and their equipment was incapable of generating power. Then on top of that, the natural gas that flows into those power generators, that is frozen up also," Abbott told Houston's ABC-13

On Tuesday night, though, Abbott went on Sean Hannity's program on Fox News and gave a different explanation of what happened. 

"Our wind and solar got shut down, and they are collectively 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis," he told Hannity. "As a result, it shows fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas." 

According to ERCOT officials, however, the majority of power lost came from thermal energy, which is primarily made up of natural gas, and not wind or solar energy. 

"As of 9 a.m.," the organization said in a press release Wednesday, "approximately 46,000 MW of generation has been forced off the system during this extreme winter weather event. Of that, 28,000 MW is thermal and 18,000 MW is wind and solar." 

Abbott appeared to walk back his comments on Wednesday during a press conference in Austin. 

"I was asked a question on one TV show about renewable, and I responded to that question," Abbott said. "Every source of power that the state of Texas has has been compromised."

When will the power come back on? 

On Wednesday, ERCOT didn't provide a specific time on when power would be restored, but it did say the best-case scenario was Thursday morning. On Thursday it said a majority of customers had their lights turned back on and that the grid was holding steady. On Friday, normal conditions were reestablished.