But when cold weather hit Texas, America’s famously independent southern state, the early novelty of snow and ice quickly evaporated. With temperatures in the low teens for days, the state, despite its dominant energy sector, saw rolling power outages turn into a prolonged blackout that left more than 4 million people in the dark and cold.
The knock-on effects were swift and severe. In parts of Texas, water supplies were turned off, and some areas imposed boil-water notices. Escaping freezing homes, Texans slept in cars or hotels; some even burned belongings for warmth. At least 21 people have died, and the economic toll was expected to be more than $1 billion.
For many, it was shocking to see one of America’s wealthier states experience such conditions. Republican Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose state has seen smaller-scale energy problems, said it was “unacceptable” to have rolling blackouts in this country. “I mean, this is the United States of America. We’re not some developing nation,” Ricketts told KETV News in Omaha.
Some suggested, however, that this wasn’t a foreign problem but a symptom of a distinctly Texan malaise. “Occasionally, something will happen in Texas to remind the people who live here that we live in a failed state,” Samantha Grasso wrote for Discourse Blog, adding that leaders thought it was “more important to prioritize short term gains than invest in people for a long term gain.”
Broadcast around the world, the scenes in Texas are another blow to America’s global image, already smeared by the pandemic and the Jan. 6 insurrection. But there may be lessons for everyone in what is happening to the Lone Star state — and a warning for anyone not prepared for a changing climate.
At this stage, it is hard to provide a simple answer for why an energy-producing state so quickly turned into a belt of blackouts. Some Republicans in Texas have already pointed toward the shift to renewable energy, saying wind turbines in the state had failed because of the icy conditions.
More importantly, wind turbines can function in the cold. In Germany, where temperatures get very low and wind power generated almost a third of all energy used during the first half of last year, blackouts are rare. There are functioning wind turbines in cold climates, including Alaska, Greenland and Siberia.
There are turbines inside the Arctic Circle that can work at temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Newer models of wind turbines have carbon fiber attached to the wings, which allows them to be automatically heated in cold weather.
Texas doesn’t use these models, for an obvious reason: It generally doesn’t get that cold. What happened this week is really unusual. On Monday, the temperature in Dallas was a high of 14 degrees, about 50 degrees lower than normal for February. Experts have attributed this weather to a mass of cold air from the Arctic.
Texas, a state where many pride themselves on low taxes and small government, had not budgeted for a freak cold snap. But this was not just felt in renewable energy sources. Jinjoo Lee at the Wall Street Journal noted that natural gas- and coal-fired power supplies had not fully winterized, while the “fairly market-driven” approach used by the grid, known as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, offers little incentive for excess electricity generation.
In another unhelpful quirk, Texas’s electricity grid has only minimal connection to the United States’ two main power grids. That move, designed to sidestep federal oversight, also makes it harder to be supplied power by neighbors.
Some experts say a broader disinvestment has befallen the U.S. electricity production sector. Edward Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, told The Washington Post this week that it reminded him of the last days of the Soviet Union or today’s Venezuelan oil sector. “They hate it when I say that,” he said.
Texas isn’t alone in facing these problems. Fourteen states in the Southwest Power Pool, which includes small chunks of Texas, saw rolling blackouts amid the cold weather this week. In Europe, there were major concerns over the power supply last month, with countries including France asking consumers to limit their usage during a cold snap.
And the problems don’t only come when the mercury drops low. Last year, California suffered rolling blackouts over the summer as demand increased amid a heat wave. Even without blackouts, high temperatures can be extremely dangerous: Nearly 1,500 died in France during a 2019 heat wave, according to some estimates.
We tend to think of climate change in terms of warmer weather, rather than the winter storms seen this week. But the science is more complex than that: As Tom Niziol wrote for the Capital Weather Gang, some research suggests that melting sea ice in the Arctic could be responsible for the disrupted weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere.
Scientists expect more cold weather to come. “We used to not worry too much about such extreme cold weather in places like Texas, but we probably need to get ready for more in the future,” Le Xie, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M University, told the Texas Tribune. “We’re going to have more extreme weather conditions throughout the country.”
Texas’s inability to keep the power on during a freak winter storm is understandable. But many regions are now having to prepare for the unexpected. In Siberia, where the power stays on in far more extreme cold snaps, record heat waves have led to alarming wildfires in recent years and destabilized buildings constructed on thawing permafrost.
Preparing for this new era of climate unpredictability won’t be fun. But the pandemic has shown the folly of not preparing for an unexpected crisis. As Sam White, a professor of history at Ohio State University, noted last year about the economic woes caused by the coronavirus: “Historically, people haven’t had the luxury of dealing with their disasters one at a time.”