Winter storm sends shivers through Texas power grid

The Klein Fire Department responded to a fire in the 19000 block of Frederick Drive on Feb. 16. (Courtesy Klein Fire Department)
The Klein Fire Department responded to a fire in the 19000 block of Frederick Drive on Feb. 16. (Courtesy Klein Fire Department)

The Klein Fire Department responded to a fire in the 19000 block of Frederick Drive on Feb. 16. (Courtesy Klein Fire Department)

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Unprecedented cold weather led to widespread power and water outages in the Greater Houston area throughout the week of Feb. 14-19. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
When winter storms brought record-low temperatures to Texas in mid-February, millions of people lost power for extended periods of time, and tens of thousands of homes suffered damage from frozen pipes.

Among those affected by the storm was the Aerodrome Ice Skating Complex in northwest Houston, where power was lost for 38 hours and a burst pipe flooded the rink’s compressor room. Aerodrome General Manager T.C. Lewis said he borrowed a motor from a Sugar Land skating rink to get one of his compressors running.

“It literally saved us close to half a million dollars,” Lewis said.

The state’s isolated energy grid was one of several faults pointed out by critics that contributed to devastating outages and have since led to a political reckoning unlike few before it.

Across the CenterPoint Energy service area, which includes the Spring and Klein area as well as Harris County, 1.42 million customers were put in the dark by 8 p.m. Feb. 15, and it took four days before almost all were restored, according to CenterPoint Energy data.

During that time, the Spring Fire Department responded to 446 calls, while the Klein Fire Department responded to 332 calls.

“We ran a month’s worth of calls in about five days,” SFD Chief Scott Seifert said.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is the electricity coordinator for CenterPoint Energy and is one of several regulatory bodies under scrutiny. ERCOT officials said the company had to force outages for more than 70 hours statewide to avoid a wider energy shutdown.

However, this put many people in harm’s way, as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said March 1 that at least 50 Harris County residents had been confirmed to have died of hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Unprecedented crisis

On Feb. 14, every county in Texas was under a winter storm warning, according to the National Weather Service. The storm brought record-cold temperatures: Houston beat its record for the lowest temperature high with 35 degrees, previously set in 1895.

Freezing weather has only led to two other incidents in ERCOT’s history, once in December 1989 and again in February 2011. Following the 2011 incident, a federal report recommended ERCOT and other authorities make winterization efforts a top priority. Over the past decade, however, ERCOT failed to do so.

Founded in 1970, ERCOT manages the power grid that covers most of the state. While it is technically a nonprofit, it is regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, a state agency. It facilitates the wholesale and retail markets, oversees grid capacity and generation, and ensures access to transmission, although the council itself does not own plants or infrastructure.

In preparation for the storm, ERCOT did alert generators and distribution partners that the storm would bring “record-breaking demand” to the system, but some lawmakers pointed out the decisions that set up the grid for failure were made years in advance.

In a Feb. 17 statement, ERCOT said around 185 generating units were removed from the grid, which it initially attributed to frozen wind turbines, limited gas supply and pressure, and frozen instrumentation. Most of the lost generation was from natural gas and coal, which dropped 20% of their output Feb. 15, per federal energy data.

Storm aftermath

Damage estimates for the February event are not yet known, but the Insurance Council of Texas has said it expects it to be the largest claims event in the state’s history.

“We are projecting into the hundreds of thousands of claims,” said Camille Garcia, the council’s director of communication.

According to state officials, substantial damage occurred after the freeze as water lines broke. Due to the power outages, temperatures dropped inside homes and businesses, indirectly causing water in pipes to freeze and expand. Once electricity was restored and temperatures rose, the once-frozen pipes thawed, leading to water damage.

Harris County Engineering Department officials estimated around 55,000 homes in unincorporated areas of Harris County have pipe damage.

In Spring ISD, district officials reported an estimated $41,000 in damages, while Cy-Fair ISD officials estimated $5 million to $6 million in damages. While Klein ISD was still conducting its facilities audit as of March 4, district officials said the damage was “very minimal.”

Energy reform

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Gov. Greg Abbott made ERCOT reform an emergency item during the 2021 Texas legislative session and the Legislature began hearings Feb. 25 with ERCOT and the PUC.

Former ERCOT CEO Bill Magness—who was ousted by the board March 3—told lawmakers during the hearings that the council can make recommendations for how plants should winterize but said generators essentially follow an honor system when it comes to implementing them.

Lawmakers pondered several ways to better enforce winterization, ranging from giving ERCOT the power to issue fines for violations to mandating winterization in state law.

State Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring, sent a letter to the ERCOT board of directors Feb. 17 calling out the organization for not taking the proper precautions despite being warned about the repercussions of not winterizing facilities a decade ago in the post-2011 storm report.

"My constituents demand action, and I echo their anger and frustration,” Harless said in a Feb. 17 statement. “I ... fully intend to hold leadership accountable for their failures.”

Locally, several Harris County officials floated but ultimately moved away from the possibility of the county leaving the state’s power grid. At a March 1 meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to have the county attorney represent the county in ongoing state conversations about improving ties with other power grids. Commissioners also called on the entire PUC board to resign.

Following Magness’ removal and the resignations of several ERCOT board members, the entire PUC board had also resigned by March 17.

“The lack of adequate [storm] preparation by the ERCOT CEO and the PUC chair, their failure to plan for the worst-case scenario and ... to communicate in a timely manner dictates they are not the ones to oversee the reforms,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement March 1.

Hunter Marrow and Ben Thompson contributed to this report.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.
By Hannah Zedaker

Editor, Spring/Klein & Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood

Hannah joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In March 2019, she transitioned to editor of the Spring/Klein edition and later became the editor of both the Spring/Klein and Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood editions in June 2021. Hannah covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Hannah served as associate editor of The Houstonian, interned with Community Impact Newspaper and spent time writing for the Sam Houston State University College of Fine Arts and Mass Communication and The Huntsville Item.