Overnight at DFW Airport, the temperature dropped to -2 degrees. It was the lowest recorded temperature in North Texas since 1949. More than 1.2 million North Texans lost power in rolling blackouts, turning a historic winter weather emergency into a potential humanitarian crisis. On Monday evening, the city of Dallas opened the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center as an emergency warming center — days after the same facility had been used as a COVID-19 vaccination hub by the city.
The extended power outages surprised residents who had been warned by the city about short outages but have now been told by Oncor, the private electric utility company that serves much of North Texas, that the outages could last for several days. Now a second storm is barreling down on North Texas, and the situation may get worse before the city thaws and temperatures rise heading into the weekend.
When Will the Winter Weather End?
We are currently sitting in the calm between the two storms. The cold front that blew threw overnight on Sunday dropped 3 to 6 inches of snow throughout North Texas. In the wake of that storm, an extremely cold arctic airmass settled in across much of the middle part of the United States, bringing with it record low temperatures.
A second storm system has pushed down off the Rocky Mountains and is heading toward North Texas, bringing with it more snow and freezing rain. According to the National Weather Service, that storm system will arrive later tonight or tomorrow morning. North Texas sits on the boundary of forecasted snow and freezing rain, meaning areas to the north of Dallas may see more snow accumulation, while southern parts of the region could see more rain and icing.
“The farther north you go, the more it’ll be snow,” said Jason Godwin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth office. “You could see freezing rain in the southeast, in places like Terrell and Waxahachie.”
What has made this latest bout of winter weather atypical, Godwin said, is that the cold temperatures were already in place over North Texas before the winter storms moved into the region, likely a result of a combination of jet stream behavior, La Nina weather patterns, and conditions related to climate change.
“A lot of time, when we are dealing with snow and sleet, a more typical scenario is to start with rain and a cold front comes through, and the big question is it going to get cold enough?” he said. “With this one, we already had that cold air in place when these upper-level storm systems arrived.”
After this latest storm, we can expect the same of what followed Sunday’s storm: clear weather that brings sustained freezing temperatures and wind. The weather will begin to shift heading into the weekend, and forecasters expect the temperatures to creep up toward 60 by the end of the coming weekend.
But in the meantime, as bad as things are now, the worst may still be ahead of us. Additional snow will make roads more treacherous, but the threat of freezing rain could add a layer of ice on top of the snow that is already on the ground. The extremely cold temperatures, with additional wind chill, means that there is a threat of frostbite after a mere 30 minutes of exposure. There is also risk of frozen pipes rupturing and additional damage to the electrical infrastructure.
Which leads us to …
When Will the Power Go Back On?
The power outages across the entire state of Texas are the result of compounding crises. The Houston Chronicle and Texas Tribune have done some solid reporting trying to sort it all out, and I will try to sum it up.
As the temperatures dropped, Texans turned up their heat. That caused a surge in electrical demand, as well as a surge in demand for natural gas, since many homes are heated with natural gas furnaces. Texas’ power grid didn’t have enough electricity to meet the demand, and there wasn’t enough natural gas to satisfy both customers and the electrical power plants that run on natural gas, compounding the electricity shortage. So the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates Texas’ electrical grid, shut off the power.
Explaining why Texas can’t produce enough electricity to meet the demand brought on by the winter storm requires delving into how the state’s electricity markets are run, and we’ll get to that in a second. For now, what’s important to know about the current blackouts is that they were ordered by ERCOT. The agency initiated rotating outages beginning early Monday morning to conserve supply. Each electrical provider was told to reduce its share of the production gap in the local market. Oncor, which is responsible for electricity distribution through much of North Texas, was responsible for cutting enough electricity to make up 36 percent of the gap in the state’s supply.
The plan was to initiate rolling outages, 30 minutes at a time, periodically throughout the night. That didn’t happen for two reasons. The first is the severity of the power shortage — rolling outages weren’t cutting enough electricity use to make up Oncor’s portion of the gap. The second is that rolling blackouts couldn’t be initiated in areas where they might affect hospitals or first responders, like police and fire stations. Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of system operations, told the Dallas Morning News that electrical providers were hampered in their ability to spread out the power cuts.
“Because of the amount of load shed that we’ve required in order to balance supply and demand, they really don’t have enough options to be able to rotate between different areas, so they’re basically having to take all of the areas that don’t meet one of those critical or technical criteria,” Woodfin said. “They can’t rotate through them and still reduce the demand by the amount that we need that we need to maintain reliability.”
The challenge moving forward is that sustained cold temperatures mean electricity demand is still outpacing the state’s supply, and localized winter storm damage is creating additional power outages. In a statement, Oncor wouldn’t put a timeline on how long these controlled outages might last.
“We are prepared for emergency operations to continue for at least several days,” the company said.
In a call with state legislators Tuesday, ERCOT said they had no idea when power could be fully restored.
But Why Can’t Texas Produce Enough Power?
Some of the power shortage can be blamed on the storm. Frozen wind turbines led to a slight decrease in the amount of power added to the grid by wind providers. More significantly, problems at Texas’ natural gas power plants led to about a 30 percent decrease in production. That decrease appears to be a result of both a decision to limit supplies of natural gas to producers and winter storm-related damage at the plants. But the underlying reason for the shortage has less to do with power production and more to do with the Texas electricity market.
Unlike the rest of the United States, Texas operates its grid as a closed network so that it is not subject federal regulations over its commodity marketplace for electricity. Energy providers — the companies that bill you for the electricity you use — make money not by selling customers electricity, but by making bets on the fluctuating price of electricity within Texas’ electricity market. They sell you electricity at a certain rate and hope that over the course of your contract, they can purchase that electricity from providers at a rate lower than what you agreed to pay.
“Consumers in Texas don’t really buy electricity,” the Daily Kos’ Mark Sumner explained on Twitter. “They buy a sort of ‘electricity insurance,’ one in which providers contract to provide them power at a semi-fixed price (that’s well above median market cost). This, like medical insurance, creates another level for profit.”
One of the problems with this market model is that it results in an electricity grid that is designed to produce just enough power to meet Texas’ usual surge in summer demand, but it doesn’t provide any profit incentive for building in contingency supply for outlier events like this winter weather we’re experiencing. The record temperatures have created a surge in demand that far exceeds the production capacity of Texas’ electrical grid, even in the hottest summer months.
Another problem is that, because that grid is set up as an independent marketplace, it isn’t connected to the national grid, and so ERCOT can’t respond to the sudden surge in demand by drawing additional power from neighboring states (though it has a few times in the past). Although the size of the storm, which has blanketed the entire state with freezing temperatures, is unprecedented, Texas is also unique in that it is the only state in the continental United States that can’t draw additional power supply from the national grid (at least without inviting new federal oversight into its electricity industry).
This winter weather crisis is also exposing other ways in which the profit incentives built into Texas’ electricity market don’t necessarily favor producing electricity to meet Texans’ needs. The mandated outages have created pricing distortions that prompted some power producers to stop providing electricity to the grid — precisely at a time when Texas needed all the electricity it could produce. On Monday, Texas’ Public Utilities Commission issued an emergency order that essentially requires electricity producers to continue to supply electricity to the grid.
Over time, the market has also not provided for sufficient reinvestment into the maintenance and capacity of Texas’ electrical infrastructure. Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle that electricity generators have not been able to charge electricity providers what it costs them to produce electricity.
“If you don’t make a return on your money, how can you keep it up? It’s like not taking care of your car,” he said. “If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work. The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union. … It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”
A City in Crisis
As rolling blackouts have turned into extended outages leaving more than 1 million North Texans without power during the deepest freeze in 70 years, local governments are scrambling to respond to an increasingly desperate situation. The city of Dallas opened the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center at 7 p.m. Monday evening to take in cold residents. Residents who show up at the convention center will be provided a chair, table, water, coffee, and light snacks, though residents are urged to bring their own meal. The warming center will be open 24 hours, through tomorrow at noon, but it will not be used as a shelter, and residents won’t be provided cots.
In a statement, the city said that it is working with Oncor to prioritize sites for power restoration and blackout exemptions, and it plans to use recreation centers and libraries as neighborhood warming centers. Fort Worth has also turned its convention center into a warming center, and suburban cities around North Texas have also rushed to transform recreation centers, fire stations, schools, churches, and other facilities into places where residents without power can get out of the cold. All these efforts are complicated by the fact that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, and closed indoor spaces pose a particularly high risk of transmission.
Dallas ISD has shut down through Wednesday, and Dallas closed its municipal courts. Walmart closed 415 area stores, Target closed 20 stores in Texas, and Amazon shut its delivery stations. Some area grocery stores are closing early, and NorthPark Center and the Galleria did not open. The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center lost power. Power outages at a water treatment plant in Fort Worth prompted the city to warn residents to boil their water before use.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit has discontinued all light rail service until Thursday at the earliest, and buses are running on a Saturday schedule with 14 additional bus lines to service rail stations. Rail lines shut because of icing on power lines and the cold and snow inhibiting operation of train doors, DART spokesperson Gordon Shattles said. DART has opened 14 transit centers that had been closed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to provide warm spaces for riders to wait, but some centers have lost power.
“Roads are still a situation, but so far we’ve been doing pretty well,” Shattles said. “We do have extra buses if one slides or gets stuck.”
Meanwhile, frustrated political leaders are struggling to get the lights turned back on. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Twitter that ERCOT did not meet a forecasted increase in power generation overnight and requested additional megawatts be cut from Oncor’s distribution network. As of 7 a.m. today, 280,000 people in Dallas County did not have power, Jenkins said. On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement calling for an investigation into ERCOT “so we can determine what caused this problem and find long-term solutions.”
In the short-term, thousands of Dallas residents are simply trying to figure out how to stay warm, huddling under covers in beds or sheltering at the homes of friends and family members lucky enough to still have heat.
“If you have the ability to help someone in need today, please do so,” Mayor Eric Johnson wrote on Twitter. “This is an awful situation, and we are all in it together.”
In Collin County as of 3:04 p.m., 85,698 of Oncor’s 301,739 customers were affected by blackouts.
Dallas County: 237,008 out of 1,009,302.
Denton County: 25,899 out of 115,328.
Parker County 9,147 out of 23,712.
Rockwall County: 10,272 out of 36,729.
Tarrant County: 171,562 out of 833,880.