It seems almost ironic for Texas, a state known for brutal summers, to freeze in the middle of an otherwise mild winter. The Texas climate has never been for the faint of heart, but it has only grown more eclectic and unpredictable in the past several years. Harsh winter storms, heat waves, and raging hurricanes have become a threatening reality for Southern States, revealing a host of problems related to environmental apathy and decades of neglected infrastructure. If climate change continues at its current dangerous pace, we risk even more dangerous weather, oscillating between temperature extremes that our current systems cannot handle. Updating Texas infrastructure to adapt to a changing climate and implementing policy that will prevent further negative consequences are investments that we need to make now, rather than waiting until after the next devastating storm.
The crisis began in mid-February as temperatures fell and a winter storm settled over the Southern US, dropping ice, snow, and freezing rain on a population accustomed to mild winters. Freezing conditions prompted Texans to turn up the heat in their homes and businesses, drawing more energy from a system that quickly revealed itself to be ill equipped to meet demands. In response, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) imposed strict orders on transmission companies to reduce public demand for energy with rolling power outages that lasted several days.
Disparities between energy supply and demand arose from several interrelated factors that highlighted Texas’s lack of preparation for the changing climate. Since freezing weather occurs relatively infrequently, ERCOT predicts energy demand and energy allocation based on expectations for high summer temperatures when residents rely on air conditioning units to cool their buildings. The energy required to comfortably heat Texas homes in the wake of the frigid conditions exceeded the power ERCOT expected to use for a mild winter and the hottest days of summer, forcing the grid operators to impose outages before the increased energy demand caused massive damage to the electrical system.
According to ERCOT president Bill Magness, power demand was so high that the grid was close to total failure, which could have plunged the state into outages spanning several months. However, in addition to increased demand, the freezing temperatures also caused decreased power supply. Texas’s energy supply literally froze as the cold conditions slowed natural gas production, ice and snow halted windmills, and the dwindling electrical power stalled fossil fuel pumps. About 40% of Texas homes use natural gas rather than electricity for heat, further exacerbating the gap between supply and demand. If a storm like this were to occur elsewhere in the U.S., the affected region could take power from neighboring areas to meet its needs because the majority of the contiguous nation is connected to one of two power grids. The Eastern Connection and Western Connection each serve their respective half of the nation, resulting in large energy reserves on which states can rely. In contrast, Texas operates its own independent power grid that is not connected to either of the two national grids, leaving Texas isolated during storms or periods of high demand. This decision was primarily an attempt to avoid federal oversight since Texas both produces and consumes a significant amount of energy.
Officials involved were quick to point fingers, blaming ERCOT, renewable energy, and Ted Cruz’s vacation plans for the energy disaster. However, this crisis cannot be attributed to any single party. The grid collapse that left most of Texas freezing and in the dark is the result of a series of failures traversing multiple levels of responsibility. At the state level, the Texas government shouldn’t have traded an energy safety net for freedom from federal regulation. Second, ERCOT should have been better prepared for the energy demands of cold weather and oversight committees should have checked the state of pipes and natural gas wells. Finally, Ted Cruz shouldn’t have abandoned his constituency for an impromptu getaway. While there are many at fault for the events of a few weeks ago, the overarching problem is one of a lack of preparation. News headlines have focused on the rarity of a Texas freeze, but Texas has experienced similar conditions before with similarly catastrophic results. In 1989 and 2011 Texas suffered bitter cold snaps and rolling outages that brought the state to a halt, and in both cases, failed to make changes to avoid future crises.
Insulating pipes, winterizing natural gas wells, and updating energy infrastructure all cost money — money that Texas does not seem to be willing to spend even as weather related power outages present a recurring problem. This is partly due to the principles underlying Texas’s energy system as the practice of paying power plants only in exchange for producing energy does not provide enough incentive to spend funds on updating existing energy infrastructure. However, economic inaction is also due to the refusal of Texas government officials to recognize climate change as a legitimate threat.
Climate change deniers will occasionally use examples of extremely cold weather to claim that global warming is a myth, but current scientific research is investigating the effects of warming Arctic temperatures on North American weather patterns like the position of the jet stream, which typically holds frigid air in place near the North pole. Severe cold snaps like the one Texas experienced occur when the jet stream slips out of position and allows air from the Northern latitudes to spill into the Southern U.S. Evidence also suggests that climate change resulting from carbon emissions increases the frequency of extreme weather events like large storms and heavy precipitation. Although droughts, rising sea levels, and wildfires are more traditional examples of the consequences of climate change, Texas’s freeze provides an important reminder that the state is unprepared for freak weather events that will only become more common in the future as climate change worsens.
The habit of prioritizing profit over preparation and the present over the future plagues Texas policy beyond the energy system. Investing in renewable energy and environmentally friendly practices is expensive, but so are climate-related natural disasters. The question Texas politicians have to answer is whether it is more cost effective to fund initiatives that would reduce carbon emissions and adapt infrastructure to the changing climate or to pay for the huge economic fallout of future storms, wildfires, and floods. While this financial argument is important, it does not consider the human cost of failing to prepare for the detrimental effects of climate change. People will die if Texas governmental officials are unwilling to pay for policies that protect their constituents from climate-related catastrophes. Over 80 Texans died during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and more than 20 died during the freezing conditions two weeks ago.
Refusing to fund initiatives to slow climate change or update existing infrastructure comes with a human sacrifice, often concentrated among the most vulnerable demographics. Climate change will disproportionately affect lower income communities and communities of color because of systemic racism underlying urban planning that results in higher temperatures and worse infrastructure in these communities. A similar trend emerged in the patterns of the rolling outages two weeks ago as downtown Austin was brightly illuminated while East Austin, which is primarily Black and Hispanic, was left in the dark. While few were spared from the discomforts of the Texas freeze, just as few will escape the negative effects of climate change, some fared better than others because personal wealth offers some protection from the weather. Rather than allow this inequality to continue, Texas should learn from this trend and invest in the necessary infrastructure to protect everyone from catastrophic future storms.
Texas once again faces a choice between ignoring this most recent meteorological disaster and updating our infrastructure and energy sector to meet the needs of a warming planet. Investing in energy policy and urban planning will also help us to avoid the tragic irony of freezing over in the southern tip of the U.S., falling off the grid in a state known for energy production, and watching our representatives escape across the southern border in search of better conditions. Texas failed to act in 1989 and 2011, but now we have another chance. It is up to us to take advantage of it and ensure the next snowstorm won’t leave us in the dark.