Deadly winter storm reignites debate over independence of Texas’ power grid
By Paul Takahashi & Staff writer February 19, 2021
Jason Hartkemeyer couldn’t count on his power staying on for more than a couple of hours at a time for three freezing nights,forcing the Cypress resident to crank up his portable generator and ignite a gas fireplace to keep his family warm during this week’s historic winter storm.
More than 740 miles away in El Paso, Kitty Schild and her neighbors were comfortably warm during the cold snap as the power never wavered. The longtime El Paso judge heard of the power crisis in the rest of Texas only when a friend in San Francisco texted her Tuesday to ask if she was OK.
The difference between Hartkemeyer and Schild? Hartkemeyer gets his power from the electricity grid overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, while Schild gets hers from the El Paso Electric grid that is connected to a web of power systems in the West.
The vastly different experiences illustrate the unique nature of the Texas Interconnection, the state’s self-contained power grid. The failure of the power system during the storm reignited a debate over the independence of Texas’ power system, which if connected to other state grids could have been spared the catastrophic effects.
Interconnections and their power-sharing agreements allowed generators to pool resources, expand markets and avoid investing in costly backup power, said Julie Cohn, an energy historian affiliated with Rice University and the University of Houston. But after a 1935 act of Congress created a federal commission to oversee interstate power transactions, Texas power companies retreated within state borders to avoid federal regulations and wholesale price controls.
The difference between the Texas grid and others became apparent this week after a polar vortex plunged much of Texas into a deep freeze, taking out much of ERCOT’s natural gas power plants, wind turbines and nuclear facilities. At the same time, demand for electricity and natural gas for residential heating soared. ERCOT said it lost some 34,000 megawatts of power, about 40 percent of the grid’s generating capacity.
ERCOT responded by instituting rolling blackouts to ensure that the grid remained operational. Grid operators on Thursday said they were minutes, if not seconds, away from the electricity system’s collapse, which could have knocked out power in much of the state for months. Instead, rolling blackouts and power outages affected more than 4 million Texans — about 11 percent of customers on the Texas grid.