A massive and unprecedented snowstorm hit the state of Texas in the United States the evening of February 14th, 2021, causing a massive increase in power demand that resulted in the state’s electric grid operator to impose rotating blackouts, according to Reuters. More than 4 million people across the state were left with little to no power for days as temperatures remained at freezing levels. Over 30 people have died as a result of exposure to the subzero temperatures or carbon monoxide poisoning. Additionally, as many as 12 million people have been left without access to water as pipes across the state froze and burst. Many Texas residents are under a notice to boil any drinking water due to treatment plants continuing to suffer from energy blackouts.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that manages the state’s power grid, said that the freezing temperatures and snowstorm had taken many of their generating units offline, causing them to implement controlled outages in order to prevent the entire grid from experiencing an uncontrolled system-wide blackout that could have taken weeks to repair, Reuters reports. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has demanded an investigation into the management of ERCOT, which is responsible for 90% of the state’s power and is bearing much of the blame for the outage crisis. According to CBS News, the demand for power and subsequent blackouts exceeded ERCOT’s most pessimistic projections, leaving the state wholly unprepared for the extreme weather event. Many critics have accused ERCOT of not heeding federal warnings to winterize their systems after a similar cold weather incident occurred in 2011. However, because Texas’s energy market is so deregulated, energy operators have very few financial incentives to prepare their systems for intense winter weather, an issue that was made glaringly apparent as much of the state was left in the cold this week.
Republican leaders in the U.S. were quick to blame renewable energy sources for the outage crisis, including the governor of Texas, who claimed on Fox News that the outages were due to wind turbines freezing—a claim that attempted to paint green energy alternatives as ineffective. Rice University professor of environmental engineering Daniel Cohan told CBS News that as a state that relies on natural gas for 40% of its energy, the crisis in Texas was largely due to the failure of natural gas plants. “A portion [of natural gas plants] were down for scheduled maintenance,” said Cohan. “Others weren’t designed to operate reliably in extreme cold weather, and others haven’t been able to get enough natural gas supply.” ERCOT also reported that wind power was responsible for only a small fraction of the energy loss—of the 45,000 megawatts of power that were offline during the peak of the energy crisis, 30,000 megawatts were due to natural gas plant failures while 16,000 megawatts were from wind turbine issues.
It is undeniable that the power outage crisis in Texas represents a major climate change event in the United States. “This is a large-scale emergency,” senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists Julie McNamara told CBS News. “We’re seeing the consequences of insufficiently considering climate impact on the grid. At the same time as grid operators underestimated potential for peak demand…they also insufficiently estimated potential for outages.” Extreme weather as a result of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is becoming increasingly common, and many scientists say that anthropogenic climate change is responsible for shifts that bring Arctic and glacial weather to more southern areas, according to CBS News. This will not be the last time that Texas and other typically warm areas of the United States will experience extreme cold weather events, and measures need to be put in place to avoid a repeat of this winter’s catastrophe. This will require strong leadership and serious improvement of public services and infrastructure in Texas. It will be no small feat, but it will be absolutely essential as climate change intensifies in coming years.
Unfortunately, Texas currently lacks the strong leadership it needs to prepare and protect its citizens from future climate change related severe weather events. Texas Senator Ted Cruz was seen boarding a flight from Houston to Cancún, Mexico on Thursday, February 18th. At the height of the outage crisis, Cruz left his state for a family vacation, while millions of his constituents suffered from the lack of power, water, and heat. On top of that, Cruz was vacationing in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic when unessential and cross-border travel was highly discouraged. Cruz’s actions display blatant self-interest, a quality that will do nothing to guide Texas and the rest of the United States through navigation of the climate crisis.
The extreme freezing temperatures and power outage crisis demonstrate how neither Texas nor the rest of the United States are prepared for climate change. Texas’s infrastructure was not strong enough to withstand a major climate event, and, as a result, millions of residents suffered for days without power, water, and heat in subzero conditions; many even losing their lives. This should serve as a wakeup call for state and national leaders in the U.S. Climate change is already having tangible effects across the country, not just in Texas. California has suffered from extreme wildfires in recent years that have decimated entire towns, and strong hurricanes frequently devastate the nation’s Gulf Coast and East Coast. Measures need to be taken now to prepare for future climate change the United States. If no measures are taken, more people will suffer and even perish as a result—an outcome that is completely unacceptable.
Furthermore, more aggressive action needs to be taken by the United States to curb fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change at a global level. As one of the largest emitters in the world, the U.S. has a responsibility to reduce their climate impact for the sake of their own citizens as well as people across the globe. Since becoming president of the U.S. this January, Joe Biden has rejoined the United States to the Paris Agreement. This is a positive step forward given that Biden’s predecessor was extremely regressive in the area of climate policy, but it will not be enough to mitigate the issue of climate change or to prevent future crises like the Texas winter storm. Biden and his administration need to act quickly, decisively, and aggressively in conjunction with other global powers to curb emissions and put comprehensive climate change policies into place, for the sake of populations everywhere.
The Texas winter storm and power outage crisis was unprecedented, and left many to suffer without power, water, and heat in freezing temperatures for days. This was a catastrophe that was preventable. Funding and building better infrastructure, electing stronger leadership, and implementing aggressive policy action on climate change are all steps that can be taken towards preventing another crisis like this one. It is clear that climate change is already beginning to affect us all over the world. Now is the time to make changes that would work to prevent and mitigate further climate change-related crises.