with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Millions of Texans have been plunged into darkness as the state's electric grid strains to provide power during a historic cold spell.

The bone-chilling winter weather is bringing into stark relief the vulnerabilities of the electricity system as over 4 million customers in Texas remain without power Tuesday morning in a state that prides itself as the energy capital of the world.

A cocktail of high power demand, strained gas supply, iced wind turbines and an independent streak that bleeds into how Texas runs its grid has led to widespread and persistent outages stranding people without power to hunker down in their homes as temperatures remain dangerously below freezing.

Much of the situation behind the blackouts remains unknown. But the outages in Texas, coming just months after rolling blackouts roiled California during another extreme weather event, highlight how the changing climate is poised to test the mettle of the power sector — both in Texas and throughout the rest of the country.

The central United States is under a deep freeze. But it's messing with Texas's electric grid particularly badly. 

Around 34 gigawatts of electricity generation has been forced off the state's main grid during the cold snap — equal to more than 16 Hoover Dams running at full capacity. 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electric load, said thermal power plants, which include gas, coal and nuclear, as well renewables have been adversely affected by the icy weather. 

Surging demand for natural gas amid the Arctic blast is driving up prices and making fuel scarce, according to the grid operator. Gas utilities prioritize providing fuel for heating households ahead of selling it to gas-fired power plants. 

Texas is also contending with reduced output from its many wind turbines as ice accumulates on blades during the cold, wet weather, grid operators added. Though traditionally associated with the oil and gas industry, the state now leads the nation in wind power generation.

Other power plant infrastructure is vulnerable to the cold, too, if fuel lines crack, water intake systems clog with ice or piles of coal literally freeze over, though it is still unclear what specific problems power plants in Texas are having.

Beyond power generation, snapped tree limbs have downed distribution lines as trees succumb to the unusually bitter cold. And many Texas homeowners, never expecting such a long-lasting freeze, have not insulated their homes like those to the north do — further overworking the grid.

“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” ERCOT president and chief executive Bill Magness said.

True to its nickname, the Lone Star State runs its own self-contained electric grid. 

That lets Texas avoid dealing much with the federal government when it comes to its grid. But that gives the state's grid operator few ways of drawing power from neighboring states during times of extreme energy demand.

“One state over might be doing just fine where Texas could be struggling because there's no way to move power between those two states,” said Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin.

Overnight, outrages of more than 100,000 customers spread to Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, according to the tracker poweroutage.us. But no state had as many homes without power as Texas.

Record low temperatures brought snow and ice to the lower half of the United States on Feb. 14, resulting in poor road conditions and power outages. (The Washington Post)

The electricity market in Texas is also set up differently from many other states. 

While other regions pay power companies to make sure they have generators on call during times of high demand, Texas electricity customers pay only for the power actually provided. That leads to lower prices during normal times, but risks the reliability of the grid when demand for electricity spikes.

The finger-pointing for the power failure in Texas has already started.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson faulted Texas for being “recklessly reliant on so-called alternative energy, meaning windmills" on his program Monday evening. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board piled on, solely blaming "frozen wind turbines" for Texas's power problems.

But that criticism is misleading. While Texas's capacity to generate energy from the wind is down with some turbines seized up, most of the power generation offline during the cold spell was supposed to come from traditional thermal plants, Texas's grid operator said Monday.

It is a redux of what happened in California after a severe heat wave in August pushed California's grid to the brink, prompting then-President Donald Trump and other Republicans to blame the blue state for shifting away from fossil fuels.

ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm, wrote in a note Monday it expects “at least a few renewable power critics may point to Texas’ woes as reasons to evaluate, if not temper, the transition toward cleaner intermittent resources.” 

The firm, however, added it doesn't expect Texas lawmakers to “adopt measures that would meaningfully undermine” renewables, now a major industry in Texas.

In the end, Texas designed a grid to handle surging summer heat — not blisteringly cold winters.

In New England, for example, gas-fired generators can switch to burning oil if gas demand spikes, while wind turbines in the Midwest have systems to de-ice blades, said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor and energy systems engineer at Princeton.

“The regions that are used to this kind of weather have strategies for dealing with it,” he said. “And Texas has not really planned for implementing those strategies.”

As the atmosphere warms due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity, cold snaps have become more rare. But there is evidence the melting of sea ice in the Arctic may coax frigid polar air south and cause severe cold snaps like the one this week, though not all climate scientists agree on that explanation. 

“I personally don't think anyone's really to blame,” Rhodes said. “This is a black swan event.” 

He added now going forward, “I hope we decide to plan for it.”

Power plays

Biden will not try to resurrect the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

In a federal court filing late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency said it instead hopes to propose a new rule aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants, our colleagues Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. 

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan set climate pollution targets for every state’s electricity sector, with a goal of reducing carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent nationally before 2030. The plan ran into legal challenges from Republican states and was replaced with a more lenient rule by the Trump administration. Last month, a federal court scrapped the Trump administration’s repeal and replacement of the Clean Power Plan.

But rather than revive the Obama-era regulation, the Biden administration is seeking the court’s blessing to start with a clean slate. The emissions reduction targets of the Clean Power Plan have largely been met due to changes in electricity generation and fall far short of what would be needed to fulfill President Biden’s promise to make the electricity sector carbon-neutral by 2035.

Biden’s ambitions may face limitations, however, from a conservative Supreme Court, which could limit the scope of executive action that the administration can take to curb emissions.

An invisible climate threat is seeping from grocery store freezers.

The chemicals that supermarkets use to keep foods cold are leaking at higher rates than regulators have assumed, according to the findings of an undercover investigation by an advocacy group, Eilperin and Desmond Butler report. Most of these refrigerant chemicals are hydrofluorocarbons — greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide and which could become the target of increased federal regulation under the Biden administration.

Undercover investigators for the Environmental Investigation Agency used high tech sensors to identify leakage of hydrofluorocarbons at 55 percent of the 45 supermarkets that they surveyed in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The investigators limited their study to a regional sample and were unable to measure the amount of leakage. But the fact that some leaks persisted for months after they were first detected may suggest that some supermarket chains are failing to do regular monitoring.

A U.S. directive to restrict funding for fossil fuel plants abroad could push poor countries closer to China.

Biden’s executive order last month calling on the United States to promote the end of international financing of fossil fuel projects could end U.S. funding for coal projects, but it may leave more countries turning to China for financing.

“Biden's directive last month to move toward withholding money from international institutions like the World Bank that help poor nations build fossil fuel power plants stands in stark contrast to Beijing's flow of cash under its Belt and Road Initiative, which supplies 70 percent of the financing for the world's new coal-fired plants,” Politico reports.

White House officials hope that the move will show China’s hypocrisy in promising environmental efforts at home while funding pollution abroad. But withdrawing U.S. funding for fossil fuel projects may not be enough to convince countries to change their energy plan or lure them away from China’s coal finance. 

Instead, the United States may need to work with other nations to build joint financing of green projects, or even consider working with China on parallel initiatives to leverage their financing toward greener alternatives, experts say.

Bill Gates goes on media blitz promoting his new climate book.

The Microsoft co-founder has outlined a plan to combat climate change in his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” which focuses heavily on the role of innovation in making it cheaper and more politically feasible for countries to combat climate change. Gates says that new breakthroughs are needed in everything from the way we make cement to the meat we put in our burgers. 

Gates says he has personally invested $2 billion in clean tech, according to the Wall Street Journal. But he says governments must also ramp up their investments.

Extra mileage

Lemurs find companionship late in life.

Zoos and sanctuaries often play match-maker for breeding. But the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina is working to pair elderly lemurs long past breeding age, as part of an effort to ensure that the lemurs have companionship in their twilight days, the New York Times reports.

To do so, the center is sometimes pairing lemurs of different species, like Cheyenne, a 32-year-old red-bellied lemur and Chloris, a ring-tailed lemur of the same age who suffers from cataracts and arthritis in her tail. Different species of lemurs rarely interact in the wild, but in captivity the lemurs appear to build tight social bonds across species.

“Our goal is that no lemurs live alone,” Britt Keith, the head lemur keeper, told the New York Times. “It’s totally unnatural and not good for their well-being.”