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2021 Texas Power Crisis
Mass power outages and food shortages resulting from snow and ice storms
February 2021 Texas power crisis
February 7, before
February 16, after
Satellite images of Houston before and after the storm. The dark patches in the latter image depict areas left without electricity.
February 10-27, 2021 (2021-02-10 - 2021-02-27) (2 weeks and 3 days)
In February 2021, the state of Texas suffered a major power crisis, which came about as a result of three severe winter storms sweeping across the United States on February 10-11,13-17, and 15-20; a massive electricity generation failure in the state of Texas; and resultant shortages of water, food, and heat. More than 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without power, some for several days. At least 210 people were killed directly or indirectly, with some estimates as high as 702 killed as a result of the crisis.
The crisis drew much attention to the state's lack of preparedness for such storms, and to a report from U.S. Federal regulators ten years earlier that had warned Texas its power plants would fail in sufficiently cold conditions. Damages from the blackouts were estimated at over $195 billion, surpassing Hurricane Harvey as the costliest disaster in Texas history. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the Texas power grid was "seconds or minutes away from" complete failure when partial grid shutdowns were implemented. During the crisis, some energy firms made billions in profits, while others went bankrupt, due to some firms being able to pass extremely high wholesale prices ($9,000/MWh, typically $50/MWh) on to consumers, while others could not, as well as this price being held at the $9,000 cap by ERCOT for allegedly two days longer than necessary; creating $16 billion in unnecessary charges.
The majority of lost power generation was from natural gas sources. Reduced electricity from coal, nuclear, and wind power plants contributed to the shortage on February 15 and afterwards.
The winter storm caused a record low temperature at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport of -2 °F (-19 °C) on February 16, the coldest in North Texas in 72 years. Power equipment in Texas was not winterized, leaving it vulnerable to extended periods of cold weather. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and some other politicians initially blamed renewable energy sources for the power outages, citing frozen wind turbines as an example of their unreliability. However, wind energy accounts for only 23% of Texas power output; moreover, equipment for other energy sources such as natural gas power generating facilities either freezing up or having mechanical failures were more responsible. Viral images of a helicopter de-icing a Texas wind turbine were actually an image from Sweden taken in 2015. Governor Abbott later acknowledged that every source of power, not just renewable ones, had failed. Five times more natural gas than wind power had been lost. When power was cut, it disabled some compressors that push gas through pipelines, knocking out further gas plants due to lack of supply.
During the 2011 Groundhog Day blizzard, Texas had faced similar power outages due to frozen power equipment, after which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reported that more winterization of power infrastructure was necessary. ERCOT said that some generators since then implemented new winter "best practices," but these were on a voluntary basis and mandatory regulation had not been established. This is likely due to ERCOT's independence of the FERC therefore not having the necessary budget to upgrade the power grid to withstand colder weather after the recommendation during efforts to increase renewable energy sources.
Gov. Abbott's appointees to the Public Utility Commission of Texas ended a contract with the Texas Reliability Entity in November 2020, reducing oversight of the grid. In July, Abbott's comissioners disbanded its Oversight and Enforcement Division, dropping pending cases that ensure reliability. While not a direct cause, the Commission's minimal oversight of utility companies, limited budget, and voluntary standards restricted its ability to secure consistent performance.
By February 17, at least 21 people died from causes related to the winter storm. By February 19, the number was updated to at least 32 people who died, with deaths linked to carbon monoxide poisoning, car crashes, drownings, house fires and hypothermia. On February 21, the death toll had increased to 70. As of July 14, 2021 the total loss of life was reported as 210.
In addition to equipment problems, demand for electricity in Texas hit a record 69,692 megawatts (MW) on February 14 -- 3,200 MW higher than the previous record set in January 2018 12,329 MW higher than its current capacity. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) initiated rotating outages at 1:25am on February 15. The rotating outages prevented electricity demand from overwhelming the grid, a scenario which could have caused equipment to catch fire and power lines to go down, potentially resulting in a much more severe blackout.ERCOT's few interstate grid connections helped ease the grid's load, reducing the severity of the blackouts.
At the peak, over 5 million people in Texas were without power, some for more than 3 days.
During the period of outages, wholesale electric prices went to as high as $9,000/megawatt-hour which was limited as a "system cap", compared to a more typical $50/MWh. Customers with pricing plans based on wholesale prices who had power faced large bills. Some Griddy customers signed up for wholesale variable rates plans allowed by the Texas deregulated electricity market, found themselves facing over $5,000 bills for five days of service during the storm. Wholesale prices stayed at $9,000 for about four days, which is a cap set by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Amateur video footage of rows of empty shelves in a Texas Walmart grocery store
Water service was disrupted for more than 12 million people due to pipes freezing and bursting. More than 200,000 people in Texas live in areas where water systems were completely non-operational. On February 17, residents of Austin were asked not to drip their faucets despite the risk of pipes freezing as the demand for water in the city was more than 2.5 times the amount supplied on the previous day. The city had lost more than 325 million US gallons (1.23×109 L) of water due to burst pipes by February 18, according to Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros. Nearly 12 million people were advised to boil their tap water before consumption due to low water pressure throughout the pipe network.
Due to the inclement weather conditions and extensive power outages, most stores statewide could not keep up with the increased demand for food and other grocery items. Many grocery stores were forced to close due to lack of power and, of the ones that remained open, completely ran out of many basic items like bread, milk, and eggs. Officials also warned that the shortages could be long term, stating that 60% of the region's grapefruit crop and 100% of the orange crop were lost due to the weather.
An intersection in Austin flooded because of broken plumbing
The inclement weather caused many fire hydrants to be unusable in emergency situations. In one case, firefighters near the San Antonio area had to rely on water tenders to deliver between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of water to the scene of a fire as the hydrant was unusable.
Plumbing in buildings throughout the state burst due to freezing. Structures were damaged by water and streets were flooded.
Significant releases of pollutants due to stopping and starting fossil fuel infrastructure such as chemical plants and fuel refineries were reported. These included one ton of the carcinogen benzene, two tons of sulfur dioxide, 12 tons of natural gas, and 34 tons of carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
The combination of below freezing temperatures with no power for heat led people to undertake dangerous ways of heating their homes. Deaths attributed to the storm include cases of carbon monoxide poisoning from people running their cars or generators indoors for heating. At least 300 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning have been reported.
The state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas was somewhat hampered from the power outage. Water and grid supply were cut off from hospitals. Hospitals still were able to operate with their own power generators. Shipments of vaccines were delayed and facilities that would not be able to store vaccines properly were asked to transfer vaccines to those who could. In most cases, vaccinations were delayed because it was too dangerous for people to travel. About 1000 doses of vaccine were lost as a result of problems.
A line to enter a Texas pharmacy on February 16
Due to the continued power outages across the state, many were faced with freezing temperatures in their homes. The freezing temperatures potentially caused the death of an eleven-year old boy, and a seventy-five year-old veteran amongst others. Zoo, domesticated, and wild animals were also at risk due to the low temperatures with animal sanctuaries and veterinary clinics identifying an increase in hypothermia cases in the animals.
In March of 2021, Congress launched an investigation into the power crisis by requesting documents relating to winter weather preparedness from the Texas electric grid manager and ERCOT.
On February 19, 2021, a lawsuit was filed in Nueces County and raised allegations against ERCOT, claiming that there were repeated warnings of weaknesses in the state's electric power infrastructure that were ignored. Also named in the lawsuit was the American Electric Power utility company. An additional lawsuit against ERCOT was filed in Fort Bend County. The company has raised claims of sovereign immunity to the legal cases, a legal principle that protects some government agencies from lawsuits if the money spent on legal fees would disrupt "key government services". This defense has been used by ERCOT in other legal cases, and has been upheld by courts.
A class action lawsuit was filed against Texas electricity retailer Griddy, for potential price gouging by a Chambers County resident after receiving a $9,000 bill for electricity during the week of the storm, compared to an average $200 bill.
Governor Abbott issued a disaster declaration on February 12, whereby he mobilized various departments including the Texas Military Department for snow clearance and assistance to stranded motorists. As the situation worsened, Governor Abbott requested a Federal Emergency Declaration on February 13, which President Biden approved on February 14.
In an effort to alleviate the energy shortage, Governor Abbott ordered natural gas producers not to export gas out of state and to sell it within Texas instead. He even called for the resignation of ERCOT leaders.
Former Representative Beto O'Rourke ran a virtual phone bank to contact over 780,000 seniors across the state.
Former Colorado City, Texas, Mayor Tim Boyd faced extreme backlash after he made comments criticizing citizens for not preparing for the winter storm and stating: "the strong will survive and the weak will perish." He resigned following the controversy.
Senator Ted Cruz faced heavy scrutiny over his trip to Cancún, Mexico. Text messages from his wife revealed the hastily planned nature of the trip, as an escape from the freezing conditions. He received condemnation from his political allies and rivals for leaving the state during a crisis and traveling internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic. Later that day, he returned back to Texas admitting that the vacation was a mistake. Cruz on February 22 tweeted the news about the hike of electricity rates in Texas, calling "(s)tate and local regulators should act swiftly to prevent this injustice". This was criticized as hypocrisy because Cruz had been a strong advocate of the Texan power grid deregulation, one of the major cited reasons which led to this mass power outage.
President Joe Biden visits the Harris County Emergency Operations Center in Houston following the crisis, February 25, 2021
Local churches, community centers and other locations opened warming stations for affected individuals as well as asked for physical and monetary donations to help those affected. Several local mutual aide groups responded with supply delivery and distribution, particularly in the hard-hit Houston and Austin areas. Celebrities such as Beyoncé and Reese Witherspoon, teamed up with companies to provide monetary relief, donated personally, and supplied donation links to their social media followers to raise relief and awareness.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez organized a fundraiser to provide food, water, and shelter to affected Texans, raising $2 million in its first day. She followed up with a trip to Houston to help alongside volunteers with recovery. She along with other Democrats toured the damage left behind by the storm as well as distribution centers and delivery sites. In the end, she raised $4.7 million.
Five unaffiliated members of ERCOT resigned due to the power failures. All five lived out of state and one lived in Canada.
The ERCOT board of directors voted to fire its CEO, Bill Magness, who turned down his $800k severance package.
On March 1, DeAnn T. Walker-the Chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the Texas agency responsible for overseeing ERCOT and the state's electricity grid, resigned after a week of tough questioning from Texas legislators at a round of hearings.Governor Greg Abbott, who had originally appointed Walker, filled the vacant chairperson position by promoting PUC Commissioner Arthur D'Andrea two days later. On March 9, 2021, D'Andrea was recorded reassuring utility investors that he would protect their profits in a 48-minute call that was later leaked to the press. D'Andrea resigned his post a week later, two hours after the call was leaked. At issue is $16 billion in alleged overcharges that accrued when ERCOT set the price of electricity at the $9,000-a-megawatt-hour maximum for nearly two days after widespread outages ended late the night of February 17 instead of resetting the prices the following day. Power generation entities benefited from the inflated prices, but retail companies and entities that buy the generated power to sell directly to consumers have gone bankrupt.
In March 2021, the Texas State Legislature introduced a package of bills that would put measures in place to prevent a future power outage in extreme temperatures. House Bill 11, defined extreme weather conditions to provide a guideline for regulators and industry to design around. House Bill 14 would create the Texas Supply Chain Security and Mapping Committee to prioritize energy needs during extreme weather. In May of that same year, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 2 and Senate Bill 3 to overhaul the state's power grid. These bills include a requirement of power plants to weatherize, instituting an emergency alert system and a loan plan for power companies.