The power situation is disastrous, and it likely won’t be fixed tonight

Millions of customers in the greater Houston region continue to experience some of our coldest weather in decades without the benefit of electricity to heat their homes. (Full disclosure, I am one of them, and have been since 2 am CT. I am typing this from my office, wearing a winter jacket).

To understand what is going on, and when the power might return, I spoke this afternoon with Kenny Mercado, CenterPoint Energy’s Executive Vice President for Electric Utility.

First, it is important to understand how power generation works in Texas. Power plants across the state generate electricity from natural gas, coal, wind, solar, and other sources. This is all put onto the grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Then it is up to companies like CenterPoint to deliver electricity to your home through its network of lines and poles. (Reliant, the sponsor of Space City Weather, markets and sells electricity to the customer. They are not directly responsible for generation or delivery).

What happened

As of 2 pm on Monday, about 1.1 million of CenterPoint’s 2.6 million customers are without power in the greater Houston area. Mercado said customers without power are unlikely to get electricity back today, and quite possibly not tonight—when temperatures are forecast to reach near all-time record lows.

Two things happened last night to contribute to these outages. First, demand was extraordinarily high across the state, Mercado said. And then, beginning at about 1 am, generating units started to shut down. This is almost certainly due to extremely cold conditions. Eventually about one-third of the anticipated capacity went offline. This included a handful of freezing wind turbines, but the majority of the volume losses were due to coal and natural gas plants going offline.

CenterPoint had been planning to manage increased demand overnight and today through rolling outages, which would last about 30 to 45 minutes. However, when power plants began going offline, CenterPoint had to prioritize circuits that fed power to emergency units, such as hospitals and police stations. After this, there just was not enough capacity to implement rolling outages so if your power went out, it mostly stayed out. (Note: If you have power, do your part by conserving energy. If you use fewer watts, access to the grid can be expanded to others).

Although some small generating units are beginning to come back online, Mercado said demand for electricity will increase tonight as temperatures bottom out. Thus, he said, for those currently without power, “It’s pretty risky to assume the power will come back on tonight.” I realize that’s a pretty sobering statement.

Mercado said he is hopeful that decreased demand on Tuesday (statewide temperatures should be 10 to 15 degrees warmer) as well as more generating units returning will allow for power to be restored to more locations, if not all of the state.

Blame to go around

This obviously is a monumental screw-up by the state of Texas, ERCOT, and the companies responsible for power generation in Texas. Why was demand not better anticipated? How are generating plants rated for cold weather production? The list of questions goes on and on. There is plenty of blame to go around, as it seems likely that people will lose their lives due to cold, or medical needs for electricity.

Be wary of those quick to scapegoat wind turbines or any single government official or political sides for this failure. This is a failure of the whole government and a lack of sensible regulation of electricity generators. We need to learn from this mistake so that it is not repeated. After our teeth stop chattering, of course.