As a recently transplanted resident of Austin (from Baltimore), I have enjoyed the warmer weather this winter. A week ago, the weather team on the local news alerted local viewers that the temperatures were forecasted to drop precipitously in Texas on Valentine’s Day.
With plans to travel for the weekend to visit one of my daughters, I looked for changes in the weather forecast. On Saturday, the forecast indicated that freezing rain would fall in Central Texas beginning at 10 p.m. I changed my plans and returned earlier, given the lack of equipment to treat and clear the roads just about anywhere in Central Texas.
Sunday in Austin was sunny, but cold. There was a very slight glaze of ice on the landscape in the morning, but nothing serious on the roads. However, local news informed us of the threat of the incoming weather, including snow and high winds. They also noted that the low temperatures could put pressure on the electric grid, resulting in rolling blackouts.
At 1:38 a.m. Monday morning, I awoke to an unusually silent house. With warm air no longer circulating, I knew the power service must have gone out. At 7:30 a.m., the power was still out. The “rolling blackout” appeared to be longer than described.
As time passed on Monday, cell phone service became spotty and cell phone internet access was nonexistent. My wife and I were able to communicate to others through text messages and occasional cell phone calls. We deduced that the spotty coverage must have been triggered by larger than normal volumes of people using cell phones since the electricity was out.
Throughout the day on Monday, we were able to keep temperatures downstairs in our house around 63 degrees, thanks to a gas fireplace. As evening approached, we brought out candles and flashlights. Fortunately, our gas top stove could be lit by a lighter, and meals could be prepared. With no TV and no internet, we asked my brother living in Maryland to monitor Austin news alerts and text them to us.
Since the fireplace was in the family room, we camped out there Monday evening. Unfortunately, the safety feature to keep the fireplace from overheating kept turning it off, which meant waking up every 45 minutes throughout the night to reactivate the fireplace. Nonetheless, we were more fortunate than others in that we didn’t have freezing temperatures inside our house, and we had running water (cold only).
Tuesday morning arrived, and there was still no power. I was able to recharge our cell phones and laptops by running the car for a couple of hours. Rather than idling my SUV, I drove around Austin to see if any businesses (like restaurant drive-throughs) were open. Few were. The roads were mainly empty.
By Tuesday evening, we prepared for another evening with no electricity or heat other than the fireplace. At 11:58 p.m., the lights came back on. The first thing we did was switch on the TV for news about our situation.
On Wednesday morning, the electricity powered down again from approximately 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. After it returned, I was able to type up this blog article and upload it. Fortunately, because more neighborhoods regained power, the cell coverage was much better. There are still more than 100,000 Austonians without power and with more snow forecast for Wednesday evening and during the day on Thursday, we may see more recycling of power with periodic blackouts.
Before moving here, I knew that Texas did not have equipment for clearing roads of lots of snow and ice. Last year, Austin had a single “dusting” of snow. Lots of snow and cold weather is unusual (see my snapshot of the “record” of 140 consecutive hours below freezing from 1983). What I was not prepared for was the power outage that followed a snow/ice storm.
Texas Energy, the utility in Austin servicing my neighborhood, explained that it could not cycle power to all of its customers without taking away power to critical areas like those with hospitals. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the Texas power grid, claimed that 45 percent of the state’s wind power turbines froze. The freezing turbines caused significant power outages and left more than four million in Texas without power.
As it turns out, wind only provides 10 percent of the grid’s power. Natural gas-powered plants were the real cause with pipelines freezing up because of some moisture in the gas. El Arroyo, an Austin restaurant with a signboard, posted “so it turns out the ‘R’ in ERCOT stands for reliability.” Clearly, it isn’t reliable at the present.
Texas Governor Greg Abbot ordered an investigation of the situation that caused the power outages. ERCOT’s CEO said that the decision to prolong outages instead of rolling outages enabled the grid to provide electricity to the 25 million residents who maintained power. Without it, the grid might have had outages that lasted months.
The Washington Post’s Will Englund wrote that the grid was crushed because its operators didn’t plan for cold weather. According to him, the grid offers no financial incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter, and cheap prices are emphasized over reliable service. Texas’ grid is self-sustaining and is not designed to import power from other states.
Texas isn’t the only large state to improperly reward utilities for weather preparation. Evidently, California’s system does the same and last summer’s rolling brownouts due to California’s heatwave were a result of limited reserve capabilities.
The weakness of America’s infrastructure has been called out by some for years. I usually associated it with bridges and roads. Now, I’m adding electrical, water, and sewer utilities.
But as long as we’re spending money to restore our economy, let’s look at how many jobs could be created to improve ALL of the infrastructure. I believe that short-sighted decisions will backfire in the long run, even in a state like Texas that appears to be preparing for a 40 percent population growth over the next 15 years. I’ll have more to write about this in the future after the temperature warms up. Hopefully, others (and not just Texans) will speak out as well.
New news (added as an edit):
Most residents without heat since Sunday followed instructions and dripped their faucets to keep the pipes from freezing. That caused the daily water processed through Austin’s water plant to double, exceeding its ability to filter and treat the water for impurities. There is now an order for everyone to boil water for two minutes before using it for eating or drinking. Many restaurants with electricity have had to scramble to find bottled water as well as food wholesalers whose trucks can navigate the icy roads. Many grocery stores have empty shelves as their suppliers have been unable to navigate as well. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 continue without power and several hospitals have transferred patients because of low water pressure. This crisis is likely to extend beyond the weekend’s warmer weather given the vast number of frozen and broken water pipes that have to be repaired.
Friday news (added as an edit)
With power restored to most Austin neighborhoods (not all, unfortunately), the rising temperatures are thawing frozen pipes. I haven’t traveled on the roads today, but apps like nextdoor and a list serve maintained by the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association are demonstrating the level of neighborly spirit throughout Austin. While the police, fire, and EMS get the publicity, I’m watching people volunteer to transport the elderly to medical appointments as well as supply tools, food, diapers, and almost anything else you might imagine. It’s awesome and it’s the people who are able who are making the difference!