fb-pixel Skip to main content

Millions lose power in Texas as state’s power grid buckles during deep freeze

Vehicles drive on snow and sleet covered roads on Feb. 15 in Spring, Texas. A winter storm dropping snow and ice sent temperatures plunging across the southern Plains, prompting a power emergency in Texas a day after conditions canceled flights and impacted traffic across large swaths of the U.S.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

(Bloomberg) -- Millions of households in Texas could be without electricity until Tuesday as the state’s power grid buckles during an Arctic freeze that’s sent temperatures plummeting across much of the US, triggered a growing energy crisis.

Large swaths of Dallas, Houston and other cities are being plunged into darkness as surging demand for heat and extreme cold pushes generators to the brink. The outages began as controlled, rolling power cuts but have cascaded into prolonged blackouts in some areas.

“They began as rotating outages but have become longer,” Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said during a briefing Tuesday.

Advertisement



The brutal cold striking Texas -- ironically the capital of the US energy industry and home of some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies -- is emblematic of a world facing more unpredictable weather due to the rising impact of climate change. The outages underscore how as the globe moves away from fossil fuels into an all-electrified system that relies more and more on renewable energy, the grid becomes more vulnerable too.

In the last six months, extreme temperatures have led to rolling blackouts in the two most populous US states. In August, California grid operators shut off power when record heat push demand beyond capacity, and now Texas’ record cold has led to the same result.

The extreme cold appears to have caught Texas’s highly decentralized electricity market by surprise. Power plants with a combined capacity of more than 34 gigawatts were forced offline overnight, including nuclear reactors, coal and gas generators and wind farms, Woodfin said. It’s not clear why, he said.

Power is going to continue to be cut across the state through Monday and potentially into Tuesday morning until enough generators come back online, Woodfin said.

“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” said Bill Magness, head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the state’s grid.

Advertisement



These are the first rolling blackouts caused by cold weather since 2011 in Texas. Spikes in electricity demand usually happen in summer in Texas when air conditioning use rises. A loss of frequency on the grid has caused 30 gigawatts of generation to halt. Many stations will have been undergoing scheduled maintenance, leaving the grid more exposed during unusually large spikes in demand.

“These are not rolling blackouts. We are dealing with system-wide power outages across the state,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Twitter.

Parts of Texas were colder than Alaska, according to the National Weather Service. The temperature at 5 a.m. in Houston was 18 degrees Fahrenheit, matching the reading in Anchorage. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Frigid temperatures and a parade of storms in the US follow other instances of extreme winter weather this year that have snarled ports and upended energy markets in Asia and Europe. Texas, which isn’t accustomed to winter’s full fury, is getting a big taste. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency, mobilizing federal assistance to aid local response efforts.

“We would expect to be in emergency operations tomorrow through at least Tuesday morning,” said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at Ercot.

The power crunch is being compounded by a lack of wind generation with output more than halving to 4.2 gigawatts. Wind turbines may freeze in bitterly cold weather, reducing efficiency, and the blades can ultimately stopping spinning.

Advertisement



The average spot price for power across the Texas grid hit the state’s $9,000 per megawatt-hour price cap shortly after 9:30 a.m. local time. LNG exports from the US also plummeted after the freeze shut ports and wells, and oil production also took a hit, with Permian oil production plunging by as much as one million barrels a day. West Texas Intermediate futures rose by as much as 2.5 percent, above $60 a barrel for the first time in more than a year.

The cut to crude supplies is threatening to unleash a rush for everything from propane to heating oil, fuels that are used in mobile heating devices.

Odessa, one of the largest oil producing areas in the Permian Basin, still has power. While San Antonio has lost power with rolling blackouts lasting 10-15 minutes, according to sources on the ground.

In Houston, there are long lines to refill household propane canisters and firewood is selling out. The city may pick up as much as 2 inches (5 centimeters) of snow overnight, along with ice and sleet, the National Weather Service said. It will get hit by another storm bringing ice and freezing rain Wednesday.

“It is going to be a cold week,” said David Roth, a senior branch forecaster at the US Weather Prediction Center. “The southern plains are in a cold pattern and it is going to take a while for them to break out of it.”

Advertisement



©2021 Bloomberg L.P.