Texas power outagesWhat Went Wrong with Texas’ Power Grid?

Published 24 February 2021

On 13 February, a severe winter storm swept across Texas and nearby southern states, bringing sub-zero temperatures and snowfall as far south as the border with Mexico. The polar air that descended on Texas lasted many days, leading to a statewide crisis as energy grids failed to supply enough power, fuels froze, and water pipes burst. Why did it happen? Experts explain.

On 13 February, a severe winter storm swept across Texas and nearby southern states, bringing sub-zero temperatures and snowfall as far south as the border with Mexico. The polar air that descended on Texas lasted many days, leading to a statewide crisis as energy grids failed to supply enough power, fuels froze and water pipes burst. 

Without heat and power, millions of Texans endured life-threatening conditions and at least 58 people across the U.S. have died as a result of the storm.

Kelsey Simpkins of CU Boulder Todayspoke with energy grid experts Kyri Baker, assistant professor in Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, and Bri-Mathias Hodge, associate professor in Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering—both Fellows of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI)—answered some questions for CU Boulder Today.

Kelsey Simpkins: What happened to the power grid in Texas last week?
Bri-Mathias Hodge
: Texans saw higher snowfalls and lower temperatures than they’ve seen in 100 years in some places. This extreme weather has had a compounding impact on the power system and the natural gas system, which are operated by separate entities and in very different ways. There were supply issues: The natural gas network wasn’t able to get power plants enough gas so that they could burn and make it power. And there were operational issues for the coal plants, nuclear plants and wind turbines that were not winterized and couldn’t withstand these cold temperatures. The issue is that all of these plants failed at the same time. If only a couple of them had failed, there would have been enough power to supply the Texan grid. 

Simpkins: What are “rolling blackouts” and why did Texas use them?
Kyri Baker
: Rolling blackouts refer to the utility or grid operator successively cutting off power to particular regions of the grid. They work in the sense that they reduce the overall demand that the power system has to supply, but it’s a bit of a brute force approach. A better approach to reduce demand would be to consistently conserve across the entire grid, but this is challenging to do on a large scale because it requires significant participation from a significant number of people.

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