How The Power Grid In Texas Failed In A Winter Storm : Consider This from NPR Millions of people in Texas have gone three or more days without power, water or both. Texas has had winter weather before, so what went so wrong this time?

Reporter Mose Buchele of NPR member station KUT in Austin explains why the state's power grid buckled under demand in the storm. And Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, explains the link between more extreme winter weather and climate change.

Additional reporting in this episode from NPR's Camila Domonoske, who reported on the Texas power grid, Ashley Lopez of KUT, Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media, and Dominic Anthony Walsh of Texas Public Radio.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
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Texas Is Defined By Energy. How Did The State's Power Grid Fail So Massively?

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Texas Is Defined By Energy. How Did The State's Power Grid Fail So Massively?

Texas Is Defined By Energy. How Did The State's Power Grid Fail So Massively?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week in Texas, Diana Gomez and her boyfriend had no power to heat up food in their Austin apartment, but they did have some cardboard boxes.

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DIANA GOMEZ: We'd had some leftover chili we'd made a few days ago. And my boyfriend has a tiny, little fire-starter. And so he just went out back and lit a fire using the cardboard we have from all of our Amazon boxes.

CORNISH: In the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Mansfield, Mayor Michael Evans has noticed the so-called rolling blackouts, which are supposed to be an intentional way to spread power supply around, don't really seem to be rolling.

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MICHAEL EVANS: When you've not had power for 3 1/2 days, I mean - and your neighbor maybe about three blocks from you - their power has not been turned off at all, you begin to question whether they are rolling at all.

CORNISH: In her home near Houston, Tanya Ingram (ph) and her family lost power days ago. They went to a friend's house to warm up, and then that house lost power, too.

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TANYA INGRAM: We actually booked a hotel, thinking that they had power. And we got there. They had no power. So it's like we can't even get out of the cold.

CORNISH: Of course, it could be worse.

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SEASON POKOJ: Just buckets - like, just standing at the door and just throwing buckets of water outside of my house.

CORNISH: A woman in Dallas gave the local Fox station a tour of her home, flooded by burst pipes.

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NATALIE SOLIS: The floors and kitchen will have to be replaced.

CORNISH: The same thing happened to a domestic violence shelter called The Family Place.

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SOLIS: The Family Place's emergency shelter, housing over 120 women and children who've escaped domestic violence, is also unlivable after the pipes burst yesterday.

PAIGE FLINK: We could see the water was pouring out of the ceilings, and the clients were trying to run in and get all their clothes. It was traumatizing for them.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - the question millions of people in Texas have, some in their fourth day without water, power or both, is how could this happen?

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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.

CORNISH: Coming up, the cost of not preparing for extreme weather. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, February 18.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. And if we're asking what went wrong in Texas, let's start by dispelling this myth that it was wind power.

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GREG ABBOTT: Our wind and our solar, they got shut down. And they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid. And that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis.

CORNISH: This week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott appeared on Sean Hannity's show, where he suggested, falsely, that renewable energy was to blame for statewide power outages.

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ABBOTT: It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states.

CORNISH: In fact, fossil fuels, namely natural gas, are responsible for a majority of power supply in Texas. So the real problem was that this week's winter storm disabled all kinds of power.

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BILL MAGNESS: Really, it was across the board. We saw coal plants, gas plants, wind, solar, just all sorts of our resources trip off and not be able to perform.

CORNISH: Bill Magness is the president and CEO of ERCOT. That's the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It manages the state electric grid, and that grid was pushed to the breaking point by people across the state using more electricity to keep their homes warm.

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MAGNESS: Fundamentally, it is a historic storm that drove electric demand higher than we've ever seen by far.

CORNISH: Now people in Texas are basically just waiting for the weather to warm up and drive demand back down. That should start to happen in some places this weekend. Reporter Mose Buchele, who's been covering the storm for member station KUT in Austin, spoke about the frustration so many people are feeling in Texas. He did that with NPR's Ailsa Chang.

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MOSE BUCHELE: The problem is that this weather just froze all sorts of the stuff that we need for heat and electricity. It froze natural gas wells, so they couldn't produce gas. It froze the lines that bring the gas to power plants. Wind turbines also froze up. Power grid operators are saying that they're getting some of these power plants back online, but then others will break down. So you might get your power restored, and then it kicks off again. And this just keeps going on like that.

AILSA CHANG: I mean, the irony here is that Texas is a state that's basically synonymous with energy, right? It's the biggest energy producer in the country. And so there are so many questions, still, about how this massive failure happened in a state like Texas.

BUCHELE: Yeah, I mean, I think you're touching on something that that's really unique to the state, right? A lot of people here take a real pride in our energy industry and kind of, like, energy leadership, so to speak. So this kind of failure really stings probably more in Texas than it would in another state. And then, of course, everyone's just talking about this weather. Everything here is built to withstand the intense summer heat of Texas. None of our energy infrastructure was built for this.

CHANG: I mean, Texas is unique in that it has its own independent electrical grid. Did that factor into these blackouts in any way?

BUCHELE: And that's another thing that people are talking about now and I'm sure, you know, we'll be talking about for months to come. Texas having its own grid - it means that it doesn't have to submit to federal regulations in the same way that most other places do. And this is also a deregulated energy market here in Texas. Power generators basically sell electricity on the open market to power companies and utilities, so they don't really build more power plants or wind farms than they think will be needed. So that will probably get some scrutiny after this as well. There are also questions about the market incentives around natural gas. When the gas supply here plummeted, the price went through the roof, and people are wondering if that high price maybe stopped some generators from operating.

CHANG: Yeah. OK. So there's clearly a lot to rethink going forward. But in the meantime, for everyone who's suffering through this right now, how soon do you think it will be before most people start getting their power back?

BUCHELE: It really underlines how powerless we are here to say that we're mostly just hoping for the weather to improve. Once it warms up, power plants will have an easier time coming back online. People won't need as much electricity. But that's going to be a gradual process. Before things get back to normal, they'll start rotating these blackouts in a more traditional way. And this may start happening soon so that maybe you'll get electricity for an hour or two, then lose it for an hour, then it comes back on again.

Then there are also other challenges. Burst pipes is one. Water pressure has become a problem in a lot of homes. A lot of people are under boil-water notices on top of having no electricity. Then there's the stuff that we might not even notice until after the power's back on, right? Ice on trees could have brought power lines down. So even if energy is restored to your neighborhood, maybe it can't even get to your house.

CORNISH: Mose Buchele with member station KUT in Austin.

Of course, this week's storm is not the first experience Texas has had with extreme winter weather.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A rude awakening, literally, for media, players and fans at the Super Bowl here in Arlington, Texas. The temperature about 20 degrees...

CORNISH: Ten years ago, in February of 2011, a massive winter storm stretched from Texas to Maine, hitting just ahead of that year's Super Bowl.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Six people were hurt when a wave of ice and snow fell from the roof of Cowboys Stadium.

CORNISH: And there was a lot of public hand-wringing after that storm, which also froze natural gas wells and led to power outages across the state.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Thick, 2-inch sheets of ice covered everything - cars, trees and, of course, the road.

CORNISH: Texas politicians and regulators were warned that the state should winterize more of its power infrastructure, but those measures were expensive and were never made mandatory. Here's energy and climate consultant Doug Lewin.

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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.

CORNISH: And according to scientists, that policy discussion should probably account for climate change.

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MARSHALL SHEPHERD: This isn't an unprecedented cold. We've seen it before. But these things used to happen less frequently. But it seems that they're happening yearly now, which is something we're keeping an eye on.

CORNISH: Marshall Shepherd is the director of the Atmospheric Studies Program (ph) at the University of Georgia. He spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep about the link between climate change and more extreme weather.

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STEVE INSKEEP: I just want to start with the obvious. We have really, really cold weather in a region that does not normally expect it. Can we connect that to climate change?

SHEPHERD: Yeah, that question always gets asked. But I always start the answer to that question with a reminder that it is winter, and it is February.

INSKEEP: Sure.

SHEPHERD: And so we can get cold outbreaks naturally. This is a case where that word, the polar vortex, has resurfaced. Typically, it's sort of keeping that cold air up in the Arctic. But occasionally, it can be breached or weakened, and you get these disruptions in the polar vortex. And then you can get this cold, dense air to ooze down into the lower 48. It would be sort of scientifically irresponsible to link this specific event to climate change, but we know that there may be a connection going forward with these types of events.

INSKEEP: Appreciate the frankness there. There has been some research suggesting that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, which might change the kinds of air that come down to the United States. Does that seem to be happening?

SHEPHERD: Yeah, and that's what I was alluding to with this disruption of the polar vortex. There's something called Arctic amplification whereby the Arctic region's warming a bit more intense than we are down in the lower 48. And there are science papers that suggest that that causes a much wavier jet stream pattern with more high-amplitude waves, if you think back to high school physics. And so we get these really cold events, but we also get these really warm events during the warm season as well.

INSKEEP: And I just want to underline another thing. Blindingly obvious, but sometimes when it's super cold, you get an Internet troll, maybe even the former president, saying something about, everybody says it's global warming. Look how cold it is. Climate change means extreme weather - right? - not just warm weather.

SHEPHERD: Well, I often say weather is your mood, and climate is your personality. Your mood today doesn't tell me anything about your overall personality, and nor does a day of cold weather or hot weather, for that matter, or a week of it. So when I see someone saying that, it clearly sort of illustrates that that person doesn't understand perhaps the difference between weather and climate. And the other thing I would say is because our winters have been so warm as our climate changes, when we do get extreme cold weather, it feels that much worse because we don't experience the extreme cold as much as we used to.

INSKEEP: So suppose somebody, an official from Texas, called you up and asked for advice and said, you know, we're upgrading the infrastructure. We're rebuilding the infrastructure. We don't want an experience like this week to happen again. And of course, because we're doing infrastructure, we want to think 20 years ahead, 30 years ahead, 50 years ahead. What kind of advice would you give Texas?

SHEPHERD: Well, you know, I'm an atmospheric scientist, so I really don't think as much about the resiliency in infrastructure. But what I often say these days is, hope or waiting and seeing is no longer an acceptable weather risk mitigation plan. Our weather models are good enough that we can plan ahead 10 days ahead, months ahead. And so I would ask these power companies to build in more resiliency in the short term and long term because we can pretty much tell you what's going to happen now from a weather perspective.

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CORNISH: Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Studies Program at the University of Georgia. By the way, some officials in Texas are trying to talk more about climate change. In fact, talking about it is literally their only goal for now.

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RON REYNOLDS: So that we can, at a minimum, at a minimum, have a hearing and to have a robust debate and dialogue about these issues. So...

CORNISH: Just last Wednesday, days before the storm hit, Democrats in the Texas state Legislature launched a new climate, energy and environment caucus. The goal was simply to talk more about climate change at the Texas Capitol. Republicans have had complete control of the state government there for almost two decades. Here's Democratic Representative Ron Reynolds, a member of the new caucus.

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REYNOLDS: We are not asking for anything other than, you know, to allow for a great discussion and have scientifically backed, you know, experts to come in and educate the members. So...

CORNISH: The state legislature is only in session for a few months every two years, and during its last session, there was not a single hearing on any bill related to climate change.

And we want to credit some of the reporting you heard in this episode. NPR business reporter Camila Domonoske reported on the Texas power supply. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT spoke to residents about riding out the storm in Austin, as did Laura Isensee with Houston Public Media. And Dominic Anthony Walsh with Texas Public Radio reported on the Texas power grid.

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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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