Picture: 123RF/RASSLAVA
Picture: 123RF/RASSLAVA

London/Boston/New York — Millions of households in Texas are suffering rolling blackouts for the first time in a decade as an unprecedented Arctic freeze sends temperatures plummeting across much of the US, roiling energy markets.

Large swathes of Dallas, Houston and other cities are being plunged into darkness for an hour at a time — and in some cases longer — as surging demand for heat pushes the power grid to the brink. The situation is poised to become even direr as temperatures are forecast to fall to as low as -16°C in parts of the state.

“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” said Bill Magness, head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which runs the state’s grid.

The extreme cold crippling Texas’s power market is part of a larger weather pattern gripping much of the US. Winter storm warnings, advisories and watches stretch from New Mexico to Maine. In the past week, about 800 daily records for cold temperatures have been set in the US as arctic air pushes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Accuweather called it one of the busiest winter-weather patterns in decades. ​

Texas is the home of the US energy industry, and the effect of blackouts hitting its major cities, oil and gas production falling because of the cold weather, and power prices soaring to eye-watering levels is symbolic of a world that is trying to get its grip on a battle against climate change, moving away from hydrocarbons.

The extreme cold appears to have caught Texas’s decentralised electricity market by surprise. When they warned of possible blackouts on Sunday, grid operators said they woud be likely to last for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. On Monday morning, officials said they were lasting considerably longer.

“These are not rolling blackouts. We are dealing with system-wide power outages across the state,” Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said on Twitter.

These are the first rolling blackouts caused by cold weather since 2011. Spikes in electricity demand usually happen in summer in Texas when air conditioning use rises. A loss of frequency on the grid has caused 30GW of generation to halt. Many stations will have been undergoing scheduled maintenance, leaving the grid more exposed during unusually large spikes in demand.

Rotating outages would probably last throughout Monday morning and were a possibility until the weather conditions ease, Ercot said in a statement.

Parts of Texas were colder than Alaska, according to the National Weather Service. The temperature at 5am on Monday in Houston was -7.7°C, matching the reading in Anchorage. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area it was -15°C.

Frigid temperatures and a parade of storms in the US follow other instances of extreme winter weather in 2021 that have snarled ports and upended energy markets in Asia and Europe. Texas, which is unaccustomed to winter’s full fury, is getting a big taste. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency, mobilising federal assistance to aid local response efforts.

Power crunch

“We would expect to be in emergency operations tomorrow through at least Tuesday morning,” said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at Ercot.

The power crunch is being compounded by a lack of wind generation with output more than halving to 4.2GW. Wind turbines may freeze in bitterly cold weather, reducing efficiency, and the blades can ultimately stopping spinning.

Earlier, spot electricity prices in Texas’s West hub surpassed the grid’s cap of $9,000/MWh, a 3,466% increase from Friday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. LNG exports from the US plummeted after the freeze shut ports and wells, and oil production took a hit, with Permian oil production plunging by as much as 1-million barrels a day. West Texas Intermediate futures rose by as much as 2.5%, above $60 a barrel for the first time in more than a year.

The cut to crude supplies is threatening to unleash a rush for everything from propane to heating oil, fuels that are used in mobile heating devices.

Odessa, one of the largest oil-producing areas in the Permian Basin, still has power. San Antonio has lost power with rolling blackouts lasting 10-15 minutes, according to sources on the ground.

In Houston, there are long lines to refill household propane canisters and firewood is selling out. The city may pick up as much as 5cm of snow overnight, along with ice and sleet, the National Weather Service said. It will get hit by another storm bringing ice and freezing rain on Wednesday.

“It is going to be a cold week,” said David Roth, a senior branch forecaster at the US Weather Prediction Center. “The southern plains are in a cold pattern and it is going to take a while for them to break out of it.”

Frozen turbines

A mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation is paralysing wind farms in Texas. That would be devastating for power plants with contracts to provide a certain amount of electricity at specific times if they need to instead buy it on the spot market to meet their obligations. At the moment, that power is exceedingly expensive.

“When wind-turbine blades get covered with ice, they need to be shut down,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate who focuses on energy at The University of Texas at Austin.

The grid in Texas has little connection with the rest of the country, making it an island when it comes to supplies.

The storms will largely miss major cities along the US east coast, Bob Oravec, senior branch forecaster with the US Weather Prediction Center said. While there could be some snow showers and ice in New York and Boston, the bulk of the accumulation will be in upstate New York and interior New England from Monday to Tuesday.

Bloomberg

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