Here are three explanations. I won’t give away the ending, but they are many of the same issues that hampered the United States in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many crucial systems in this country are run on an ad hoc basis. A lack of planning, a reliance on just-in-time logistics, and a self-defeating trust in the profit motive are withering the American economy and way of life.
1. It’s simple: Nobody planned for this. “We are not known for our winters here,” Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute, told me. “We vastly underestimated how cold—and how widespread that cold—could get in Texas.”
The power grid is a titanic machine made of copper and steel, but it has to be played like a Stradivarius. At any moment, power plants must generate about the same amount of electricity that customers demand. An out-of-balance grid can burst into flame or break down. This week, some of Texas’s biggest cities saw overnight wind chills around zero degrees Fahrenheit; temperatures across the state did not pass the freezing mark for days. Three in five Texans warm their homes with electric heaters. Those heaters suddenly needed a lot of power: The system didn’t have that power, so it failed.
This failure cascaded down the power lines. When the managers of Texas’s grid realized that they had too little power to meet demand, they told local transmission organizations—smaller grids that cover specific cities or regions—to begin rolling blackouts, Rhodes said. This is a standard move when electricity becomes scarce, but the outages are supposed to, as the name says, roll. In a normal rolling blackout, managers will cut electricity to a neighborhood, wait 45 minutes or so, then rotate it to the next neighborhood and restore power to the first. Nobody likes it, but at least everyone gets some power.
But the “outages are not rotating” in Texas, Rhodes said. This is because the state was—again—unprepared. In an emergency, every local grid must keep the power running to certain key facilities, such as hospitals and 911 call centers. This week, when the local grids directed power to the circuits that serve those facilities, they used up all of the electricity they could distribute. In many cities, that critical infrastructure wasn’t entirely on the same grid circuit. So the blackouts never rolled: Some houses lost power for three days, and others, those lucky enough to be on the same grid circuits as hospitals, kept their heaters running the whole time.
2. But this explanation begs the question: Why couldn’t Texas generate enough electricity?
The Texas grid is named after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the agency in charge of managing it. (Yes, reliability is in the name—making ERCOT perhaps the sole instance of oxymoronic metonymy in English.) ERCOT can keep the lights on during sweltering summer days, when Texans demand more than 70,000 megawatts of power. During this week’s coldest days, Texans demanded about that much power again, Rhodes said. Yet this time, the grid could deliver only about 40,000 megawatts. What happened?