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Nation & World

What's Happening In Texas With The State's Power Grid

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Texas, millions of people are without power during one of the worst winter events the state has ever seen. That is raising questions about why the energy grid failed so miserably. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is among many calling for an investigation.

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SYLVESTER TURNER: And I think when this is over, we'll need to have a conversation, a serious conversation as to why we are where we are today.

CHANG: Dominic Anthony Walsh has been covering this for Texas Public Radio and joins us now.

Welcome.

DOMINIC ANTHONY WALSH, BYLINE: Thank you.

CHANG: So I guess I just want to start with a basic question here. What exactly happened with the power grid in Texas?

WALSH: Right. So, basically, supply plummeted as demand surged. The operator of the state's electric grid, ERCOT, says it saw a record demand on Sunday evening. And that was right as temperatures plunged and snow started to fall. That same night, power plants started going offline. They were knocked out by the weather. And that's when these so-called rolling blackouts started. But for many Texans, the blackouts have not actually been rolling. They've been persistent. A lot of people have been without power since Sunday night. And no definitive timeline has really been laid out for when they can expect the heat and lights to come back on.

CHANG: Wow. OK, well, I know that Texas gets some of its energy from wind, and we are hearing that some wind turbines froze up. Is renewable energy contributing to the problems here?

WALSH: It might be contributing, but it's not the main problem at all. Of the power sources that have been taken offline, the bulk are coal or natural gas. And data from ERCOT, again, the state operator of the electric grid - data from ERCOT shows that renewables have consistently performed near or above expectations almost throughout this storm, whereas fossil fuels have dramatically underperformed.

CHANG: Interesting. OK, well, this storm is pretty unprecedented in both severity, you know, with the extreme cold, the snow, the sleet, but also in scope, right? It's affecting every part of the state. So I guess I'm wondering, should officials there really have seen this coming? Because Texas is used to mild winters, usually.

WALSH: Right. So as you've said, the state is focused on and likely prepared for extreme heat events. In this case, a polar vortex and extreme winter storm - the state of Texas was not ready for this. Here's Doug Lewin. He's an energy and climate consultant.

DOUG LEWIN: Power plants in Canada work during the winter because they spend the money to weatherize. Do we need to spend that money to weatherize? There's costs associated with that. So there's a policy discussion to be had there.

WALSH: Now, Governor Greg Abbott has already called for an investigation and reform of the Texas grid. And today, federal regulators also said they'll look into what caused these power outages in Texas, as well as in the Midwest. And they'll try to find solutions to keep these massive power failures from happening again.

CHANG: So what do policymakers and experts in Texas say needs to change?

WALSH: Well, Texas is facing a big problem. Experts agree these types of extreme weather events are becoming more common and more probable as the climate continues to change. You know, we're even seeing occasional extreme cold snaps this far south. Cyrus Reed is with the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. And he's also a consumer representative for ERCOT, which, again, operates the state's electric grid.

CYRUS REED: I think there are a lot of, you know, obviously, staff at ERCOT and people who understand that the climate is changing and anticipate that. I don't think that's the case at the highest political level.

WALSH: The 2021 state legislative session kicked off last month. And there are some bills that, if passed, would require Texas state agencies to take into account climate change for planning and operations. But during the last state legislative session two years ago, the legislature didn't hold a single hearing on any bills focused on climate change.

CHANG: That is Dominic Anthony Walsh with Texas Public Radio.

Thank you.

WALSH: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.