A Reckoning in Texas
In February, Texas faced the startling reality of a changing climate with single-digit temperatures that led to widespread power outages, flooded homes and lives lost. But why was Texas hit with one of the worst blackouts in our country’s history? And why was its energy grid unprepared to handle it? This week, senior energy analyst Julie McNamara of the Union of Concerned Scientists helps us answer these questions, and Lori Landry, a longtime friend of Sec. Castro, shares her family’s experience of having to evacuate their impacted North Texas home.
Resources from the episode:
- Julie on The Takeaway – The American Power System Is Unprepared For Climate Change
- 6 things to know about supply, demand, and our electricity future – The Union of Concerned Scientists
- Tracking the Texas power outages with PowerOutage.US
- Power outage terms explained – KUT
- Mutual aid for people affected by the outages – Vox
- How to prepare for power outages – CDC
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Julie McNamara, Lori Landry, Julian Castro
Julian Castro 00:01
Last month, my home state of Texas faced one of the worst blackouts in our country’s history.
Reporter on TV
15 million, that’s the number of Americans right now who are estimated to be without power.
We experienced single digit temperatures day after day. That led to an unprecedented need for electricity to keep people warm in their homes. But our energy grid couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t used to this high level of demand.
Reporter on TV
Our concept that multiple electric generating plants started shutting down, their equipment simply froze up. So with less electricity being generated, you know what that means, rotating outages.
A couple of weeks ago, I called up senior energy analyst Julie McNamara from the Union of Concerned Scientists to help me answer these questions and dive into the science and economics behind what went wrong. One of my longtime friends Lori Landry also joins us. After days of these extreme temperatures, a pipe burst in her bathroom that ended up flooding her family’s home in North Texas. I catch up with her to talk about the outages and the uncertainty of her family’s living situation over the next few months.
So, ERCOT, or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas made the decision to cut people’s power, leaving over 4 million residents in the dark. My family and I lost power at our house in San Antonio on and off for about 18 hours over a day and a half. But we were fortunate. Many of our neighbors lost power for days, the temperature inside their homes dipping so low that eventually they had to find shelter elsewhere. At least 80 Texans died because of weather related causes. And to add insult to injury, many Texas families face the prospect of 1000s of dollars in energy bills because of the way the Texas market prices energy. So why were we so unprepared? What needs to change to curb ever increasing outages in Texas and across the country? And how do we move away from an energy system in Texas that’s too driven by profit.
Julian Castro 02:26
This is OUR AMERICA. I’m your host, Julian Castro.
Lori, it’s so good to reconnect with you. Although I’m sorry that it’s under these circumstances. When the winter storm hit, and the power went out for a lot of people in the state, water went out and pipes burst. I saw your Facebook posts about the experience that you and your family were having. You live in Grapevine with your family. Grapevine is in the DFW area about halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Can you just tell me what happened as the storm hit?
So, honestly I think we were excited in many ways about the notion that there might be snow, I have two young boys. And so like so many people, we were seeing that there was likely to be some winter weather. We took precautions, we prepared the house, we had all of our outdoor faucets wrapped. But you know, the temperatures have gotten quite cold. You know, we had wind chills and -7, -10 range. And we lost power like a lot of folks did. I immediately got concerned I contacted my energy provider encore to figure out was it something that they needed to come out and repair and realize that apparently we were under a rolling blackout. And so they advised me that it was probably going to be about 45 minutes and we would have power restored.
Lori Landry 04:02
So you know, that did not seem to be too much of an inconvenience. And, you know, we kind of hunker down. What then took place was about 57 hours of no power. And you know, we felt like we could make it something of an adventure for the kids. But over the period of x couple of days it got really cold in the house. I’ve gotten to the low 30s In fact, and so you know, we tried to set up a tent in the living room, we tried to lock in as much heat as possible. We took all the comforters off our beds and the extra throws off the couches. And I remember the first night we took our kids and put them in the tents in between us and then just layered blankets so we managed to keep them warm. But the two of us were just freezing and couldn’t feel our feet or hands.
And that felt like a lot to kind of put them through but they were okay and by the next day. They felt like okay, we made it through the night. Now what? What are we doing now? Because that’s behind them. Surely this isn’t going to continue. And so we started trying to find hotels to go to. And what we found was that all of the hotels in the DFW area were sold out. You know, we had really been isolating with for the duration of 2020, my youngest son has a lung condition. And so we didn’t feel comfortable to spunking in with somebody. And so we felt like we needed to stay. And so we stayed for the better part of that day, and it continued to get colder and colder.
We took shifts in the car to try to heat up, I’m using the heat of the car out on the street. But finally, at you know, after about 52 hours, we decided that we probably needed to go. We had you know, little kids imploring us to make it better. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. And so we left, we went to a family member’s house. And we spent one night with him. And then the next morning, around seven that morning, next morning, my next-door neighbor, who’s lovely, and takes her dog out for sing in the morning, called and said, there’s water rushing out of your house. Clearly, something’s really wrong.
Julian Castro 06:08
This is like the nightmare scenario for so many homeowner, right? Yeah, yeah, we
Yeah, yeah, and we felt like we did everything right. You know, we were dripping faucets. We had racked the outdoor faucets, we really tried to take all the precautions that we you know, we have read about. But she said, you know, there’s a lot of water, and it’s just rushing out of your home. And so we were 20 minutes away, and we were rushing to get back there. And in the meantime, not only did she start digging out our water meter, but another neighbor across the street came by and to help her. And so we have two neighbors that actually managed to get our water off by the time we got home, which was amazing.
But it was not before our entire first floor flooded, and it was underwater, our ceilings began to cave in and our kitchen and in our dining room and in our entryway. And it was coming from the ceiling. So apparently a pipe burst between the first and second floor. And you know, I think that was really upsetting in so many ways. Because this was not a you know, a pipe that was an exterior facing pipe wasn’t in the garage, it wasn’t in the slab. This was a bathroom pipe that was in a wall inside our house that really had no business ever getting that cold. But because our house was without power for you know more than 50 hours, and because it got to have freezing temperatures inside the house, the pipe inside the house froze. And then finally burst and flooded the house.
So I mean, again, we had neighbors show up, we were all masked up and started just bailing water out of the house. And then just figure out next step. So you know, I took a break to call our insurance company and thankful that we have insurance. But even that, it was the case of basically leaving a message and then going online and trying to make a claim and did not hear back for days. And I think, you know, you’re talking about insurance companies that are dealing with 10s of 1000s of similar claims and just can’t get to you.
Lori Landry 08:04
So we have been living in Airbnb’s as we could find them. But we’re incurring all of these costs just out of pocket. And insurance has basically said we can’t pay any of your costs, until a plumber can substantiate what happens and fix it. And in the meantime, unless you have means to float and pay for all of these expenses. You know, you’re on your own, you’re out of luck.
I was thinking the other day that when we get to march 13th. It’ll basically be a year, from the day that everything started shutting down in our country. It’s hard to believe that it’s an it’s been a year, you mentioned that one of your son has a lung condition and y’all had been very careful during COVID to sequester yourselves and try to avoid getting exposed. Can you just reflect on this last year of COVID combined with the experience in Texas?
It’s such a good question. And honestly, it’s that those two things kind of coming together has been my breaking point. I think like so many people, the pandemic has been really hard to get through. We’ve been I think lucky in so many ways. But it’s been a lot to take and home has been our safe place. So you know, we’ve obviously lives in our home, we’ve worked in our home, we’ve had the kids school in our home and so to have that sort of blown apart and not really know what the future holds and not have that safe place where we can kind of keep ourselves in a bubble, keep even the teacher that works with us in a bubble is really frightening.
I don’t know I told Garrett my husband last night that I kind of felt like I could do the pandemic or I could do this but them together, it feels almost insurmountable. I think that this is going to be all the more difficult for kids and communities that have been under invested in, and what are our leaders? What are we going to do about that, to make sure that this doesn’t push them further and further from opportunity, and set us back all the more. You know, I think that this is the time for everyone to come together and really think about what it’s going to take to rebuild for everybody.
Lori Landry 10:32
So yeah, I’m more optimistic than I have been in the past. But it shouldn’t have taken this, right? I think one thing that just amazes me is we were all have, we were all getting those alerts on our cell phones on our weather apps for two weeks, right? We all saw it; we all saw this big winter storm was coming. You know, my kids were even kind of excited about it. They thought they were gonna like play in the snow. But with that said, we were all counting down and really surprised. Okay, now they’re predicting subzero temperatures. Now they’re predicting wind chills as low as -12.
Wow, we’ve never seen that. And so we should not have been surprised. This shouldn’t have taken us by surprise. How is it that now we’re hearing from folks that, you know, we were knocked within an inch of the grid going out for months? How is that possible? When we have you know, states in the North and the Midwest, that have freezing temperatures that go on for months and this isn’t happening.
And what do you think needs to happen when it comes to our state leaders addressing the failure of our energy system?
I mean, I’m encouraged that there’s an investigation obviously, I’m encouraged that that folks are starting to step up and have some accountability. I think that there’s a lot of blame to go around. But I think that we need to figure out a way that with regard to regulation that we can find that balance was there still room for innovation, but that regular everyday working people are not feeling the pinch. We’ve been talking about this for decades, where regular working people can afford their utility bills in the summer. And this this is really no different. It’s a different effect. It’s a different outcome.
Julian Castro 12:21
For up to six months, Lori’s family will have to live in a rental home while they wait for repairs to be completed on their house. And while this certainly isn’t ideal, Lori recognizes that insurance is truly a lifesaver in a situation like this, and without it, her family would be facing a much harsher reality. For some Texas, it’s going to take a long time to replace the furniture, appliances, personal items lost as a result of these outages. Even if disaster relief is an option, months or possibly years could go by before they see that money. After the break, Julie McNamara walks us through what exactly led to these widespread power outages. And what Texas and the rest of our country need to prioritize to avoid such extreme outages in the future.
Thank you for taking the time to help us understand what in the world happened here in Texas over the past couple of weeks. After the winter storm here in Texas and the power outages and the water outages that came with it, the deaths of Texans, the tremendous property damage and inconvenience to the lives of a lot of Texans. People are scratching their heads and wondering, where do we go from here? But first, could you just explain from a basic standpoint what happened that led to 4 million Texans losing power during that winter storm?
Julie McNamara 14:06
Yeah, so what happened in Texas was at once as a stunning disaster and crushingly familiar. We’ve been here before, both in Texas and in the broader in across the country. We’ve suffered events of similar cause or consequence. But in Texas, right? As this deep freeze swept through the center of the country and down to bring the Texas temperatures that are not familiar, they’re cold temperatures, it led to quite staggering mismatch of supply and demand of electricity. And it was in that mismatch that the power went out and it went out for days on end, but at the same time that electricity demand surged, electricity supply started dropping off.
And that mismatch prompted the grid operator to call in emergency load shedding events, which is really rolling blackouts. Except of course, in this situation, they did not end up being rolling for fire too many people, they persisted for days on end. But how? How did it come to be that the generators weren’t prepared for the moment? That was a failure of planning. For a system that’s heavily reliant on natural gas, the interdependencies really showed their vulnerabilities this last week.
You mentioned that I mean, how there’s an inner reliance there. I mean, just at a physical level, we know that a lot of these facilities were not winterized properly, or not winterized to withstand that kind of storm that we saw. But there were breakdowns along the way that people may not be as familiar with, may not understand as easily. At a physical level, what were some of the breakdowns, if you could just describe them a little bit?
Julie McNamara 16:02
Sure. So it seems that generators of every type took had some issue during this deep freeze. So we saw problems with cooling water intakes freezing, meaning that to keep the plants running, they had to shut down because they couldn’t access cooling water, problems with sensors that weren’t able to operate in these temperatures. And again, that would force the plant offline. We also saw problems with access to natural gas supply in particular, where even if a natural gas power plant was able to run, it couldn’t get access to natural gas to be able to power its operations.
That’s right. This is an interesting point that the ability to get that gas and turn it essentially into electricity was itself a cut off obstructed because their power was shut off at some point.
Yeah, and that was another example of failure in planning, because that feedback loop should never have been allowed to occur. And it sounds like there was outdated information on where some of this infrastructure was. And power supply was cut for places that that were needed, in fact to generate power, further perpetuating these outages.
And as the power outages, you know, emerged on that Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, there was a lot of finger pointing about what the real culprit of these problems were. And almost reflexively right at the beginning of the outages. This narrative developed mostly on conservative media and the right wing that was the fault of investing in renewable energy. This was solar and wind. The governor, Governor Abbott went on Fox News, and potentially elated at the footsteps of the renewable energy industry said that that’s the problem.
Gov. Greg Abbott 18:06
Shawn, this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America, Texas is blessed with multiple sources of energy, such as natural gas and oil are when in 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. It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure that we were or will be able to heat our homes in the wintertime and cool our homes in the summertime.
As we go forward to try and make improvements to the system. What are the biggest things that Texas needs to keep in mind as we look at what happened, and how to fix it, and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
The fact is, this outage should never have occurred, the system should have been prepared for it. But if you don’t want to face that chorus, then you do everything you can to try to blame something else. And the idea that the governor could spin different messages to different audiences is not how we progress from here, right? We need to reckon with the reality of the moment, we are living with a rapidly changing climate. And we need a system that’s prepared for these extreme weather impacts. And what we saw in Texas was the consequences of failing to do that. It’s also important to keep in mind that climate impacts certainly will not be, they will be of many and varied forms.
And in fact, the Texas grid has been strained mightily by extreme heat over past years and that is an impact to they’ll have to continue to be prepared for heading into the future. So, when we talk about what it means to be resilient, or to take messages from this, yes, there may be some changes to equipment that has to occur. But far more importantly, is how we conceptualize the energy system, how do we make something more resilient. And that’s not just the infrastructure, but also how we move and operate and bounce back and limit the duration of an outage so that even if the broader power grid does go down, that the costs and consequences are mitigated.
Julian Castro 20:40
You’ve spoken about building back in a more resilient way. I mean, what does that look like for Texas?
It’s a multifaceted approach. And one of the things that makes this both an opportunity and a challenge is that we have to pull levers and spin dials in so many different areas of the system. So for one, we believe that the future must be based on clean energy, right? To have our best chance to have a livable climate, we need to drive down carbon emissions as much as we can, as fast as we can. And if we fail to do that, then the impacts facing the grid will escalate year on year on year.
Now, they’ll still be escalating in the years ahead. But the more that we tackle climate change, the easier that job will be. So at the same time that we’re transitioning our power system, the grid on which it relies, right? That holds these generators together, must itself become more flexible, and more resilient. So we see that as a switch from these centralized generators, this one-way power flow to a more decentralized system, where you don’t just have more diverse resources on the system. You also encourage diverse ownership and governance of these resources.
Julian Castro 22:02
Do you mean, you know, like distributed energy, folks are having their own solar panels? Or what are the types of things that we’re talking about?
Yeah, exactly. So we need the power system as a whole to be reliable and resilient, right? We have to make sure that it can stay up in the face of these impacts, but it’s going to go down. And so at the same time that we invest in that broader power system, we also need to be looking to the local level. And that means distributed resources. That means solar on rooftops, or in neighborhoods, that means batteries for storage. That means more efficient homes, weatherization, which can help in the winter in the summer end, let alone and disasters can save money and help tackle the staggering inequities in energy burdens that exists in our population, where low-income families are spending a disproportionate share of their income on electricity bills day on day, that’s not a world we should want.
Electricity should be something that all can afford and have ready access to, again as we’ve said, right, it underpins so much of our day to day. And we have families all across this country facing the threat of utility shut offs, because they can’t pay their bills. So when we look to that future, we look to better access to renewables close to home to clean energy to a system where you can have in your local neighborhood, more resilient systems. And yes, you’re still connected to the broader grid. But should the broader grid go down, you have locations where people can go for warming or in the summer cooling where you can have a refrigerator to keep medicine cold, or medical equipment running. Right? So having these bottom-up community resilience initiatives is critically important for these disaster events, but also for the day to day.
Julian Castro 24:26
Texas is the only state that runs off of its own power grid. And for a long time, that was a source of pride for the state. Talk to me about what role deregulation of Texas energy market and the grid that it has, what role did that play in the failure that we saw during the winter storm?
Yeah, so this this cut across a few different few different levels. I mean, to begin with, when you have a smaller area on which you can call In the disaster, it will always make it harder to ride through. So when we saw these same temperatures, in other states, they also faced challenges with keeping the lights on, but they were able to spread the load. And the outages seen were much smaller and shorter in duration, because they could lean on one another. In Texas, that’s just not possible. What also happened in Texas, was a prioritization of profit over people, because people should never have been exposed to these tail risks. It really makes you ask who was prioritized and why.
It truly is amazing and also sad that it adds injury to injury. So many people who lost their power, sometimes got property damage, in the least were inconvenience. Some people even lost their lives. And at the same time, they’re going to get higher bills than they’ve ever gotten before many of them. What’s your advice to legislators in Texas, as a tackle? What in the world to do about all of this, they have angry constituents that are saying there’s no way we’re going to first of all, we can’t pay these bills, there’s no way we were going to pay them or should pay them. At the same time, this is how the energy market in Texas is structured.
Julie McNamara 26:26
Yeah, so this will take a long time to unwind. And I hope that policymakers and regulators do keep people front of mind. And I hope as policymakers look forward, they consider what the costs of this were, and where they truly cheaper than having invested beforehand, to ensure an event like this didn’t take place. Because far too often what we see is a wave away from potential investments in resilience, in hardening, in preparedness, in efficiency, in weatherization. And yet, anytime a disaster hits, the costs and consequences are so much greater than if we had been investing in advance.
What I worry about is that we don’t have such leadership in some of these places, and especially what we saw with that near term rush to blame renewables, and to blame the Green New Deal. That’s not leadership, that is running from accountability. And as we look to the time ahead, we need commitment to the future, we need people who are brave enough to walk that path of change, and commit to that future, knowing full well that they’re unlikely to be in power when that change arrives. But still doing it for the good of the people, because that’s the change we need.
You know, Texas, of course, is a huge state, my home state. And in the backdrop of what happened in Texas, we also have a new administration in Washington, a new outlook, on investing in renewable energy and a push in Congress for the Green New Deal, for all types of investments in renewable energy. What are you hoping to see when it comes to the Biden administration and Congress working together to expand renewable energy in our country?
Julie McNamara 28:27
Yeah, so to begin, I’m hopeful. And that is an incredible place to be to believe that we can affect change, and that we can have, from our federal government. A commitment to acknowledge and tackle the reality with which we’re faced. One of the most exciting outcomes from the early days of the Biden administration was a consideration of a whole of government approach to climate change. And what makes that so important is that climate impacts trickle through throughout our every day. And we saw it here with the electricity system. And then of course, with the gas system, and then how those interconnected with the water system.
That we also see it in all types of infrastructure throughout our country, and all types of climate impacts from health inequities and pollution burdens. But now, the administration has discussed their build back better plan, right? Investing in our infrastructure. This is at once imperative and an opportunity, because we know we have to transition our energy system. We also know there has been a chronic underinvestment in our infrastructure. So as we look to that future as we invest in our infrastructure, we do it in a way that’s considerate of climate impacts. And that supports the build out of clean energy. It presents this opportunity to evolve our system to the place it needs to be Both in terms of carbon, and in terms of climate resilience, this is a clear opportunity. And one we’re, we’re both excited about and believe is urgently necessary to begin avoiding those events that occurred in Texas the other week.
Julian Castro 30:19
What are the consequences if we don’t do that?
The consequences of is more of what we’ve seen. And I hope to see humility from policymakers across the country. Because what happened in Texas happened in Texas, though of course, it also touched states all around Texas, of which many suffered severe impacts. And yet, we’re not the focus of media, we’re not the focus of immediate aid relief. And those are indeed the communities I worry the most about. Because they deal with the consequences. The ripple effects will be so long lasting. So yes, this is in Texas, we saw this cold event. We know we’ll see a heat event.
We know we’ll see drought; we know we’ll see Hurricane Harvey again. Hurricane Laura. Right? The wildfires in California, the duration of the extreme flooding the extreme heat in the northeast, we’ve seen these extremes, and we know they keep coming. And to me, the question is for how much longer can we only be reactive to these events? Can we afford to keep coming back after a disaster and asked for support? When what we need is to say here now, we’re going to commit to change and invest in better preparedness for the future.
Yeah, it is it astonishing how much we end up paying for the consequences of these climate events spurred ultimately on and made more frequent by climate change and our failure to build resiliency into the system. You know, the last year of this pandemic has really laid bare that the most vulnerable are often the most hurt. And I think that was true in the winter storm, as well. It was also true, though, that this was an experience that was shared by Texans everywhere. You had neighborhoods that were wealthy that lost power for hours and hours on end, you had folks that were that suffered property damage throughout the state because of busted pipes after not being able to heat their homes on both ends, for the most vulnerable. And also, for all Texans. All Americans. What do they need to be thinking about in terms of building a coalition for change?
Julie McNamara 32:54
Yeah, it’s such an important question, because, indeed, people were exposed to the consequences of these outages across the state. But the consequences were not born equally, right? From who lost power first, who got it back last? Who can afford to lose the food in their refrigerator? Right? The bills that stack up, the share of income or total lack of income to be able to overcome these immediate costs and the repairs that will be required in homes. Also, the toxic pollution exposure that so often occurs in outages like this, in frontline communities, say near refineries, where outages so often trigger these pollution events, the costs and consequences are so uneven.
And I think we saw that, at its most staggering degree, when we saw one of the state senators leave the state because the environs were uncomfortable, most people can’t afford to leave. And that’s not a future we should accept. And so when we think about what that better future looks like, it begins with a rejection of the current inequities in the system, and a belief that all should have some level access to power, to reliability, and to basic dignity and respect.
Julian Castro 34:27
Julie, thank you so much for lending your expertise, and for the work you’re doing. Certainly, over the last couple of weeks in Texas, we’ve seen that we need to take a new direction. And we need to understand the impact of climate change, how we can be more thoughtful about becoming more resilient and prevent the kind of thing that we saw the loss of life, the loss of property, the high cost from happening again here in Texas. Thank you.
If the Texas power outages are telling of one thing, it’s the powering an entire state on an independent energy grid is risky business, especially in a deregulated market designed by politicians who lead energy providers put profit ahead of people. We should hold these leaders accountable for the economic strain and the lives lost as a result of these outages. Residents have also racked up a total of $16 billion in electricity overcharges because of the system failure. And although many in charge of the Texas power grid have resigned or been fired, it’s not enough.
Extreme temperatures aren’t going anywhere. That’s the reality of climate change. We’re unfortunately going to see more destructive hurricanes, wildfires, and winter and heat storms. new data from climate central found that major power outages have increased by 67% since 2000. Let’s do our part to curb the impact of climate change by investing in renewable energy and battery storage technology. And by lowering our carbon footprint. In Texas, we also need to reform the state’s energy market to improve reliability, sustainability, and deliver lower cost ratepayers. Next week, President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation and climate activist Julian Brave NoiseCat joins us to talk about overcoming high COVID-19 infection rates in native and indigenous communities. And the historic significance of Secretary Deb Haaland confirmation to the Interior Department.
Speaker 4 36:33
Haaland is inheriting a very broken agency that was tampered with quite purposefully by the Trump administration. You know, the Bureau of Land Management moved to Grand Junction Colorado which led a whole bunch of people to quit. You know, there is a fire sale of leases to drill on public lands for oil and gas at the end of the Trump administration. And there were countless rules that were tampered with or rolled back that she’s going to have to fix.
OUR AMERICA is a Lemonada Original. This episode was produced by Matthew Simonson. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer. Our associate producer is Giulia Hjort. Kegan Zema is our technical director. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Julian Castro. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me on Twitter at @JulianCastro or in Instagram at @JulianCastroTX.