Texas Froze. California Baked. The Power Failed Because Both States Failed to Plan

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A sign states that a Fiesta Mart is closed because of a power outage in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 17, 2021.  (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

A few weeks after California’s rolling power outages last summer, Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Texas pulled out his iPhone and tapped out a political dig at the Golden State.

“Alexa, show me what happens when you let Democrats control energy policy,” he tweeted, responding to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s plea for residents to conserve energy by turning off major appliances, as another heat wave had Californians cranking up their air conditioners, driving up electricity demand.

Crenshaw blamed California’s ongoing energy supply problems on its aggressive adoption of solar, wind and other renewable resources.

It’s worth noting California and Texas have very different energy systems. Texans generate about two-thirds of its power from natural gas. The remaining third comes from nuclear, wind, solar and coal. Most of the state’s electricity is managed by a grid operator independent of the rest of the U.S.

California, like most states, is different from Texas in that it's connected to a larger regional grid system by transmission lines that operate as a backup system. When California’s demand outpaces its supply, it's able to acquire power from its neighbors. And as cold temperatures from the winter storm have frozen most of the country, the grid operator asked Californians to conserve energy to reduce demand on the regional system.

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This week, Crenshaw’s witticism, as it were, made the rounds again, a few hours after a frigid winter storm froze many of Texas' gas wells, forced some of its coal and nuclear plants offline, and iced a portion of its wind turbines, right when demand for heat skyrocketed.

The toll of a widespread power outage in Texas has far surpassed the impact of California’s rolling outages last August, when a heat wave baked the West and pushed California’s grid operators to issue the state’s first rolling blackouts in 19 years.

Texas is in its fifth days of outages, though most of the power is now back on. On Tuesday, more than 4 million homes and businesses went without power. The grid operator has restored electricity for some, but millions of people remained in the dark on Wednesday and Thursday, the Texas Tribune reported.  Freezing winter conditions continue to affect water infrastructure, and half the state has lost access to drinking water or is on notice to boil it.

With Texas officials not able to definitively state when the crisis will end, the political discussion quickly devolved into finger-pointing and a vacuous back-and-forth about whether California’s Democrats or Texas’ Republicans have the better energy strategy. Fox News' Tucker Carlson actually blamed the Green New Deal.

But the problem is much bigger than the components of each state's energy mix.

Energy planners in California and Texas both failed to anticipate power demand, so they were left short on supply. The outages exposed just how vulnerable the two states’ creaky power systems are to extreme weather driven by climate change; both networks are designed to handle spikes in demand but not wild and unpredictable weather.

Under the strain caused by severe weather events, the systems in both California and Texas  gave way.

"There is plenty of blame to go around,” Jesse Jenkins, energy professor at Princeton University, wrote in the New York Times. “The failure to prepare for this extreme cold is systemic, and the millions of Texans enduring deadly cold and extreme discomfort deserve a closer look at what went wrong, and what to do about it. The lessons can help Americans prepare for the range of extreme weather that a changing climate will bring.”

Last August, about 800,000 Californians were without power for only a few hours. But it would be many months before investigators could untangle the knot of complicated reasons for the state’s blackout.

A preliminary root cause analysis published in October by three agencies found energy planners didn’t line up the right resources and failed to fully anticipate the impact that climate change could have on the grid, as well as on the demand for energy in California.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has called for emergency reform of the state’s grid operator and a thorough investigation, similar to the postmortem California conducted after its blackout.

It’s early days still, but it appears that more than half of the Texas grid operator’s winter generating capacity went down because of the storm. Every energy source used in Texas, from nuclear reactors to wind turbines to gas plants, failed in some way. The state relies on gas for most of its electricity and failures in that system are “the biggest cause of the current outages,” according to Jenkins.

Loretta Lynch, former president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told KQED’s Lily Jamali on Tuesday that she blames deregulation and privatization of the energy market for the power outages.

“When the power plant generators in Texas have the choice between paying a shareholder dividend and paying to prepare for storms like they're having now, the power plant owners paid their shareholders, customers be damned,” she said.

Lynch says a key problem in Texas is the state’s failure to require maintenance standards for its power plants. In California, where stronger regulations govern the industry, government agencies weren’t enforcing the rules, she said.

“What's happened in Texas is what's happened in California,” Lynch said. “If you don’t maintain your power plants, they’re not going to operate in conditions when you really need them.”