March 24, 2023

Texas power outages: Officials warn of low water supply; nearly 3 million households without electricity

Here’s what you need to know:

Nearly 12 million Texans affected by water quality issues

After enduring multiple days of freezing temperatures and people dripping faucets to prevent frozen pipes from bursting, cities across the state warned residents Wednesday that water levels are dangerously low and may be unsafe to drink.

Many Texas cities are issuing boil notices — asking residents to boil tap water for drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth and making ice — as residents have been struggling to maintain power and heat while an unprecedented winter storm whips across the state.

“Water pressure is very low. Please do not run water to keep pipes from bursting,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Wednesday morning. “Turn off water if pipes have burst. Please contact us if you don’t know how to turn off water. Be conservative on water usage today. It is needed for hospitals and fires.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged Wednesday afternoon that telling people to drip faucets was the correct guidance earlier this week, but now it’s in people’s best interest to “shift gears and conserve water.” The city is also calling for volunteers who can help transport people from their homes to warming centers.

Approximately 590 public water systems in 141 Texas counties have reported disruptions in service, affecting 11.8 million people as of late Wednesday afternoon, according to a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesperson.

Activities such as showering and doing laundry are safe, but cities under water boil notices are asking people to conserve water if possible.

At a Wednesday press conference, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said water quality issues were related to the lack of electricity, frozen and broken water lines, and people dripping faucets so much that it was causing lower water pressure. Baker also said it will take testing to demonstrate that the water is safe before boil notices can be lifted. There are only 135 labs in the state that do that sampling, he said, which means the boil notices could linger. 

Grid operator reports 2.7 million households without power Wednesday morning 

Some 2.7 million households were still without power Wednesday morning after the state’s electricity grid manager said utilities were able to return power to about 600,000 homes overnight.

“We know this is hard. We continue to work as quickly and safely as possible to restore power,” read a tweet from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power flow for about 26 million customers in the state. “We hope to reduce outages over the course of the day.”

Oncor, the largest electricity provider in the state, reported early Wednesday that ERCOT was still directing it to continue controlled outages due to a lack of generation.

The utility was reporting 668,000 customers affected by outages, and an announcement posted on its website said ERCOT was still unable to say when grid conditions would improve and urged “all customers to be prepared for extended outages to continue.”

“Oncor was able to rotate some outages overnight, but poor grid conditions have continued to prevent us and other utilities from rotating, or rolling, the entirety of these outages, leading to extended periods without power for many of our customers,” the statement said. “We also urge customers to prioritize the safety of themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors.”

Local governments warned residents that they could remain without power throughout the day.

Austin Energy, which provides electricity to the capital city, said the utility was dealing with “two emergency events” triggered by the partial grid collapse and an overnight ice storm that intensified the severe weather conditions.

“Customers should be prepared to not have power through Wednesday and possibly longer,” the utility said in a Wednesday tweet. — Karen Brooks Harper

Texas Attorney General vows to investigate power grid operator over catastrophic power outages 

[9:15 p.m.] Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday night he’s launching an investigation into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and related entities over “their mishandling of this week’s extreme winter weather.” Paxton did not specify what kind of an inquiry he was launching or what specifically his office plans to investigate.

“They have left 3+ million homes w/o power for days, including my own,” Paxton tweeted.

ERCOT, a nonprofit that manages the power grid used by most of the state, has come under fire this week over its handling of the massive and long-lasting power outages that have affected millions. Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday declared reforming ERCOT an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session and hours later said leadership at the entity should resign. Meanwhile, House and Senate committee hearings are scheduled for the coming weeks to investigate the issue.

Paxton, who is facing an indictment on felony charges of securities fraud, more recently has been accused by former top employees of misusing the office of the attorney general on behalf of a donor. Those allegations have already sparked civil lawsuits.

A Paxton spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the ERCOT investigation. 

Austin hospital facing loss of water pressure, heat 

St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, which has roughly 300 patients, is facing a loss of water pressure and heat, the Austin American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski reported Wednesday evening. Officials said other hospitals in the Austin area were suffering from similar conditions, according to Plohetski, and were working to find solutions, such as transporting water trucks.

Earlier Wednesday, cities across the state were warning residents that water supply had dropped to dangerously low levels and may be unsafe to drink. — Cassandra Pollock

Texans in Congress demand answers from ERCOT on state’s power crisis

Texans in the U.S. House are demanding answers from the leadership on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, and the federal government’s energy oversight arm. Their questions in multiple letters seek answers to how the Texas power crisis came to be and how to prevent another emergency of this scale in the future.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, led most of the Texas Democratic delegation in signing a letter that asked ERCOT how it enforces equitable distribution of “controlled” outages, why it waited to announce outages and what it is doing to decrease the duration of lost power.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess of Lewisville led most Texas House Republicans in writing a similar letter to ERCOT management, asking how the agency anticipated energy demand before the blackouts, the likelihood of similar weather events in the future and how the grid’s resiliency can be improved.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston, wrote a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission supporting its investigation of failures in the Texas electric infrastructure. The pair of Democrats serve on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the electric grid.

“Our first priority must be getting power and water back in people’s homes,” Fletcher said in a statement. “After that, we have to have a full investigation into exactly what happened, why it happened and what we need to do to make sure it does not happen again.” — Abby Livingston

Texas school districts cancel classes, transition to remote learning

As cities deal with power outages, broken pipes and other effects from the storm, Texas’ biggest school districts have canceled classes or transitioned to online learning for the week.

  • Austin Independent School District canceled classes through Thursday, with students joining asynchronously Friday. Several schools have opened as warming centers.
  • Cypress-Fairbanks ISD closed all schools through Friday because of major water damage, food loss, power outages and unreliable water. During this time, no remote learning will occur.
  • Dallas ISD schools and offices closed through Wednesday due to widespread power outages affecting around 25% of district schools at a time. The district will resume all-remote learning for Thursday and Friday.
  • Fort Worth ISD has canceled in-person and remote learning through Friday, but salaried employees will still work. The district has canceled its Meals To Go service for the rest of the week and anticipates resuming the program next week.
  • Fort Bend ISD canceled classes through Wednesday and suspended grab-and-go meal services until further notice.
  • All Houston ISD schools and offices will be closed through Friday. There will be no remote or in-person instruction. All food distributions, including supersites, curbside pickup and apartment deliveries, are canceled through Saturday.
  • Northside ISD remote and in-person classes are canceled through Wednesday, with all meal distributions suspended.
  • San Antonio ISD is closed Wednesday with no plans for remote instruction. Dual credit courses at Alamo Colleges were canceled for Wednesday, and dual credit courses at the University of Texas at San Antonio were canceled through Friday. Meal distribution continued.

White House says FEMA providing diesel, water and blankets to Texas 

At an afternoon news conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency were “in close contact with states across the affected area to ensure any federal support requirements are met.”

“FEMA has supplied generators to Texas and is preparing to move diesel into the state to ensure the continued availability of backup power, which of course is a major issue on the ground to key critical infrastructure including communication, hospitals and water,” she said. “FEMA’s also supplying Texas with water and blankets at their request.”

Gov. Greg Abbott requested that Biden issue an emergency declaration for the state Saturday. Biden approved it a day later, authorizing FEMA to provide resources to all 254 counties. — Abby Livingston

More power outages expected as Texans continue struggling to find warmth, safety 

Texas residents said the storm — and ensuing partial collapse of the state’s power system — sapped what mental reserves they had left after eleven months of a global health crisis that has cost thousands of jobs and claimed more than 40,000 lives in the state.

“To go through all of that and then also to have stuff like this happen, it’s like, ‘One more historical event, and I’m going to develop PTSD,’” said Brianna Blake, 31, a mother of two sons. “I cannot do this.”

Officials with the state’s energy grid operator said it is still struggling with balancing supply and demand to the Texas power grid — and could not project when long-lasting outages would end.

Meanwhile, Oncor, the largest electricity provider in the state, tweeted Tuesday night that the state’s power grid operator had directed more reductions in the electric load, and residents should “please be prepared for additional outages.” Austin Energy issued a similar warning to its customers in Central Texas and said customers who have been without power the longest could continue to be affected.

Energy experts, local leaders and residents said energy and state officials failed to properly prepare people for the mass outages coinciding with dangerous weather that’s already led to at least 10 deaths— Texas Tribune staff

Power grid operator underestimated peak demand during an extreme winter event 

Texas largely relies on natural gas — especially during times of high demand — to power the state. Experts say natural gas infrastructure, from pumping it out of the ground to the plants in city centers, was unprepared for the plunging temperatures brought by the winter storm.

More than half of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ winter generating capacity, largely powered by natural gas, was offline due to the winter storm, an estimated 45 gigawatts, according to Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.

The outages during this storm far exceeded what ERCOT had predicted in November for an extreme winter event. The forecast for peak demand was 67 gigawatts; peak usage during the storm was more than 69 gigawatts Sunday. 

Frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages

Frozen wind turbines in Texas caused some conservative politicians to declare that the state was relying too much on renewable energy. But in reality, the lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans.

By some estimates, nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt due to the extremely low temperatures, while freezing components at natural gas-fired power plants have forced some operators to shut down. 

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This article was originally published on Texas power outages: Officials warn of low water supply; nearly 3 million households without electricity

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