As the freezing weather that left millions of Texans without power this week subsides, the head of the power grid covering most of the state revealed just how close it came to a full-on collapse. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Bill Magness, the president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said that if the utility did not cut power on Monday, the amount of energy going offline due to the storm, combined with a surge in demand amid the intense cold, could have caused widespread blackouts lasting for months, leaving the state in an “indeterminately long” crisis.
“It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system,” Magness said. In that disaster scenario, demand for power would have overwhelmed the supply of energy on the grid, which could potentially cause power stations to blow and equipment to catch fire. Once physical infrastructure takes such severe damage, it can take months to repair and would demand a slow process to return power sources back to the grid. “It has to balance constantly,” Austin-based energy expert Bernadette Johnson told the Tribune. “Once a grid goes down, it’s hard to bring it back online. If you bring on too many customers, then you have another outage.”
While the decision in the early-morning hours on Monday saved the ERCOT grid from total disaster, it also cut the power of millions of Texans exposed to freezing temperatures caused by a polar vortex. Because Texas does not have significant power reserves, operates an independent grid, and has largely eschewed weatherizing its natural gas and renewable energy infrastructure, the state that produces more energy than any other was not able to provide millions of its residents with basic services for the better part of a week. And while power has returned for most — though 384,000 customers are still without electricity as of Thursday afternoon — a new crisis is unfurling. Nearly 12 million residents have been advised to boil tap water for drinking, cooking, and brushing their teeth, as broken pipes from the cold may have introduced contaminants to many water systems throughout the state.