Temperatures plunged and drove Texas into darkness as half the state’s generation went offline. There were many proximate causes, but they all came back to a deregulation that rewards profits today over resilience and reliability.
Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user Jonathan Cutrer

Nearly 5 million Texans lost power Valentine's Day weekend, most for days as temperatures plunged to minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit in Dallas, colder than Anchorage, Alaska.

Demand for power to heat frigid homes set a winter record in the state.

Then catastrophe struck as, one after another, more than 180 coal, gas, nuclear and wind generators went offline, each one crippled by the cold.

Natural gas production plummeted in west Texas, reducing pressure at gas plants below the level they needed to function. Meters froze, destroying pumps and other equipment. Certain gasses began to liquify and clog in uninsulated pipelines. Coal piles froze back into solid mountains. Discharge pipelines for plant cooling froze at one of the units at the South Texas Project nuclear plant, shutting it down.

ERCOT’s boundaries include most, but not all of Texas. El Paso on the far western tip of the state, for example, is outside of ERCOT and never lost power.

At the height of the crisis, nearly half of the Texas system's generating capacity — 52,000 megawatts out of roughly 108,000 — was forced offline, according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that runs the power grid for 90% of Texas. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.

Inside ERCOT's control room, grid operators watched in horror as the frequency on the grid began to fall below the nominal level of 60 hertz.

For more than four minutes it stayed there, falling as low as 59.3 hertz. Had it stayed there for just over four more minutes, the grid itself would have begun to damage the plants and equipment that were still functioning, potentially triggering an uncontrolled grid shutdown with no clear path to restoration.

"If you have a motor and it is spinning and you put more load on it, it will spin slower, sort of like if you are pedaling up a hill on your bike," said Joshua Worthey, a nuclear equipment operator at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose and a member of Ft. Worth Local 220. He was not on duty at the time but talked with his brothers and sisters who were.

When temperatures in Texas fell below Anchorage, the ERCOT power grid nearly collapsed and millions were plunged into darkness, including huge sections of Houston (above, before, during the crisis). Credit: Joshua Stevens

"The large motors are not designed to operate when the frequency gets out of band like that, and they will start to tear themselves apart. We had entered a timeline where we were two, three minutes from shutting down," he said.

If Comanche went dark and its 2,500 megawatts disappeared, it could have taken the whole grid down. And power plants need power from the grid to run. The lights, the equipment, the computers, they all run off the grid like any other building.

"If the whole grid goes dark, then it would be like trying to start your car with no battery. They would have had to bring in emergency diesels on trucks just to start us up again. And with us being nuclear, we would have to wait until other generators had started up and the grid had stabilized," Worthey said.

As terrible as things were in those few days, the disaster could have been much worse: the nation's second-largest state could have been in the dark for weeks, possibly months.

"That is the thing we cannot allow to happen," said then-ERCOT CEO Bill Magness in the days immediately after the crisis. "If we have a blackout of the system, the system is out for an indeterminate amount of time and it's extraordinarily difficult to bring it back."

In ERCOT's pre-winter report the absolute worst-case-scenario assumed demand would peak around 58,000 megawatts and 8,600 megawatts of generation would be knocked offline.

In reality, demand peaked at 77,000 megawatts in the season when demand is usually lowest. Demand in the scorching Texas summer regularly tops 125,000 megawatts.

But the problem wasn't the demand. It wasn't power lines sagging and breaking under a blanket of ice. Transmission and distribution worked. It was a failure of generation.

"In a storm of this nature it is usually transmission that goes down, not generation," Utility Director Donnie Colston said. "T&D stayed up and intact and was waiting on generation."

At the darkest moments, the grid was 34,000 megawatts short of demand, according to ERCOT. In one single calamitous 30-minute span on a Sunday morning, 26,000 megawatts disappeared from Texas' power grid.

"This was not a surprising event. It is a tragic event. But it wasn't surprising. I told my mom the week before there would be blackouts," Worthey said.

In some cases, it wasn't loss of gas supply or frequency drop, but equipment failure.

The South Texas Project nuclear generating station lost an entire unit dropping 1,280 megawatts from the grid. The cause was reported as a loss of steam pressure by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but, Worthey said, there was never a loss. The problem was that a small pipe off the main feed where cooling water intake pressure is measured was uninsulated.

"One of the flow instruments froze; there never was a real drop in flow in the main feeder pipe. It was a loss of indication to computers, but once you have more than one or two signals drop out the computer will shut down," Worthey said. "In colder climates, those pipes are insulated."

At 2 a.m., ERCOT ordered utilities to dump load, blacking out millions. In total, ERCOT ordered the blackout of 20,000 megawatts, what Bloomberg reported was the largest forced power outage in U.S. history.

"We excluded anything critical, any circuit that had hospital or police," said Paula Gold-Williams, CEO of CPS, the utility that serves San Antonio.

As many as 5 million homes and businesses were abruptly thrust into frigid darkness for nearly four straight days. Power was cut not only to homes and businesses but to the compressor stations that power natural gas pipelines — further cutting off the flow of supplies to power plants, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Seventh District International Representative Chris Wagner, former business manager of Austin Local 520 and lifelong resident of the city, never lost power because, he believes, his family lives near a fire house. But his wife's sister and her family and his mother-in-law did lose power. They came to stay at Wagner's house.

As Generation Fell, Grid Frequency Fell, Threatening a Total Collapse
Source: ERCOT

Then the faucets went dry.

"As the water pressure started to fall, we filled up five-gallon buckets and the bathtub, as much as we could before they went dry," he said.

For four days, some bottles and whatever snow they could melt was the only water eight adults had.

"We filled the crawfish pot with snow and had it running 24/7 just so we could flush the toilets," Wagner said. "It wasn't easy but many, many people I had it far worse than we did."

More than 30 Texans died, including Cristian Piñeda, an 11-year-old boy who froze to death in an unheated trailer while trying to keep his three-year-old brother warm. It was 12 degrees when Cristian's mother put him to bed Feb. 15.

The fallout from the catastrophic failure was swift. Magness was fired. The head of the Texas Public Utility Commission resigned along with five members of its board of directors.

Within a week, investigations had been launched by both houses of the Texas Legislature, the attorney general, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

And while Texas had it worst, the state was far from alone in struggling with the frigid temperatures. Power failures extended out of ERCOT, affecting thousands of utility customers in Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. People as far away as the Great Lakes lost power. At least 20 more died across the U.S. in seven states. Over 300 people were hospitalized from carbon monoxide exposure from using grills or cars or other devices to try to stay warm.

But for most people outside Texas, blackouts were brief. What was it about Texas that made everything so much worse?

The Lone Star Grid

As he watched the outages roll across Texas, Seventh District International Representative Todd Newkirk thought back to a pamphlet the IBEW printed up back in the late '90s when "deregulation" was the rage.

"It was called, 'Will Electric Deregulation Short Circuit America' and we talked about all this," Newkirk said. "I used to have boxes of them in my car and handed them out to everyone and we laid it all out. Before Enron, before this; all the chaos is what we forecast."

Utility-grade power is unlike nearly any other commodity. Except for a relative-few pumped hydroelectric reservoirs and a growing handful of early-stage battery storage facilities, there is no way to warehouse or bank energy for the future. If you want power now, you have to make it now.

Under normal circumstances and for most Americans, if a power station nearby goes down, the grid simply serves up power generated somewhere else. Most Americans live in either the Eastern or Western Interconnects, vast webs of transmission and distribution lines divided roughly by the Rocky Mountains.

These interconnects are further broken down into Regional Transmission Organizations, with names like CAISO, MISO and PJM, which oversee the integration of local distribution grids, customers, transmission and independent generators.

The federal government first started to set the rules for those connections when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Every state signed on to this idea: in exchange for greater resilience and reliability, there would be a new layer of federal regulation that would set the rules of the road.

Every state except Texas. With its huge supplies of fossil fuels and self-confidence, Texas made itself an electrical island. Texas regulators never let its grid stray across state lines

The state could make its own rules as long as it lived on its island. The rules are set by the state Public Utility Commission for energy. The Texas Railroad Commission handles gas regulation. For the last 20 years, since Texas unleashed market-based reforms in its rawest form, the buying and selling of power in Texas has been handled by ERCOT.

By design, federal regulators have no say and no sway in Texas.

The market they built is the simplest possible. The only way a power generator makes money is by selling power. There is no money to be made in building emergency capacity; many other independent system operators and regional transmission organizations allow what are called capacity payments, but not ERCOT.

ERCOT grid operators dumped at least 20,000 megawatts of demand, likely the largest forced power outage in U.S. history. Texas came within 9 minutes of a regional blackout that could have lasted weeks or even months.
Credit: ERCOT

"When utilities owned their own generation, they made sure they could cover their customers. But it's all generated by third parties now and they have no similar commitment," Colston said.

There is no regulation in Texas requiring generators to produce a minimal amount of energy, as other markets do, nor is there a body that can require generators to winterize, nor can any organization require that more capacity be built. Market signals and only market signals determined the size, shape, location and cost of the Texas power grid.

The thinking of the deregulators was that market incentives alone would be enough to convince generators to prepare for worst-case scenarios. If they set the maximum legal price for energy at some unimaginably high level — they settled on $9,000 per megawatt-hour when it normally hovers just about $25 — ERCOT believed some company would see it was worthwhile to build for the outlying opportunity. If you were the only company selling power when the price was that high, you would make a killing.

But not one of them did. In the end, the generators that could produce with their normal equipment did, and the ones who couldn't paid no price for producing nothing.

"Generation could not magically appear, and the price signals did not stabilize the situation," wrote Patrick Woodson, chief executive of Green Energy Exchange, a retail electricity provider in Texas.

The generators that somehow stayed online hit the jackpot. Some of the "lucky" people whose power stayed on and had chosen the variable pricing programs in the power marketplace were stuck with utility bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"When you pay just for the cheapest system, that's all you will ever get. Not inexpensive power. Not reliable or resilient power. Just cheap," Colston said. "Cheap doesn't mean an honest deal for customers; profits are coming out no matter what. All you get yourself is the cheapest. And in this particular case, cheap killed people."

In actuality, it hasn't even been that cheap. Since the energy marketplace was created in 1996, individual Texans have chosen among a blizzard of private energy providers. It's so complicated that there are consultants whose only job is helping people navigate the marketplace.

"Somehow individual Texans are supposed to get a better deal than utilities," Colston said.

The evidence is that they can't. Even before the immense — in some cases immeasurable — losses of the blackouts, a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the federal Energy Information Agency found that, since 2004, Texans with retail electricity providers have paid $28 billion more than Texans who buy their power from traditional utilities.

Overpaying for What?

In 2011, during the Super Bowl, record cold temperatures caused Texas-wide blackouts. Something similar happened in 1989.

Reports warned it would happen again unless the gas distribution and power generation systems were winterized to handle the high-cost, low-probability cold snap.

In the last 12 months, the two largest states in the U.S. with power systems that function under rules that could not be more different had massive opposite extreme weather-related power failures.

Heavily regulated and interconnected California was knocked out by heat waves, free-market Texas by a cold snap.

The cause was different, but on closer examination, they were not that dissimilar.

"If the problem was a simple one of policy difference — too much or too little regulation; too much fossil generation or more renewables — either Texas or California would have kept the lights on. But neither did," Colston said.

What they have in common is a decades-long national abandonment of investment.

"We support construction of all new generation sources, but the market has to be able to look past how cheaply a megawatt can be built," Colston said. "There are other priorities like the lives of customers during cold snaps like what Texas experienced. Markets must be changed to reward baseload that is the foundation for everything else."

Colston said this includes capacity pricing and rewards for grid services provided by baseload generation like frequency smoothing and black-start capacity that renewable and gas generation rely on but don't pay for. There should also, he said, be some kind of penalty for regular producers that disappear in emergencies.

But, Colston said, price signals are not enough either. Where the carrot hasn't worked, the stick must be tried. Regulations should be passed requiring generation in emergencies and hardening of the gas distribution system. Consumer markets for electricity must also be rethought given all the evidence that they are bad deals for consumers and utilities.

On an even larger scale, despite billions of dollars of investment by utilities, the U.S. is still far behind where it needs to be.

"The reality is that we have gone two generations without sufficient investment in our power grid," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "President Biden has delivered us a far-reaching, comprehensive infrastructure plan that includes major upgrades to our nation's power grid. We are going to fight like hell to get that through Congress."

We have lived off the infrastructure investment our grandparents made after World War II for too long, he said.

"Only a mix of investment, regulation and market reform will prevent another disaster like what happened in Texas," he said. "IBEW members stand ready to advise and, more importantly, build and run this nation's next-generation grid to make sure this never happens again."