Texas grid struggles left hundreds of Marfa residents in the cold

Illuminated by candles and the light of recently charged electronic devices, Alexia Melendez, 8, and her brother Aiden, 6, huddled in the living room of their southside apartment on Tuesday as the family prepared for another cold night without power. For warmth, their mother Rosa, who lives at the home with her own mother and five kids, had set some pots of water to boil on the stove. Rosa was worried about carbon monoxide poisoning if the gas flame went out — but with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, she didn’t see any better options. “I guess we have no other means,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t last that long.” Photo by Maisie Crow

MARFA — When temperatures plummeted in Marfa on Sunday night, residents turned up the heat. This week’s extreme winter weather created record demand for electricity across Texas, and soon, hundreds of Marfa residents, along with nearly five million other Texas households, were out of power. By press time, 2.7 million Texans were still in the dark, and power was newly restored in Marfa.

All 254 counties in Texas were under a winter storm watch on Sunday night, creating an unprecedented amount of energy consumption, and hundreds in Marfa struggled to stay warm through record low, single-digit temperatures this week. As demand for warmth increased, that same icy weather was stalling out energy generators, creating a dangerous threat to the stability of Texas’ main power grid.

Almost all of Texas operates on one transmission grid, overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). As electricity demand threatened to rise higher than its declining supply on Monday, it was ERCOT that made drastic orders for electric utility companies across Texas to cut their customers’ power, or else risk uncontrolled blackouts that could damage the grid, leaving power out for months.

In the early hours of Monday morning, ERCOT directed electric utility companies to implement “rolling brownouts” where companies would rotate power outages between sections of their customers, decreasing the number of people on the grid at one time.

At 4 a.m. Monday morning, the southern section of Marfa went dark. The breaker for the northern side of town remained on. AEP put out an early morning statement that power outages from “30 minutes to an hour” had begun. But the situation worsened quickly.

Soon, AEP was asked by ERCOT to “shed more load” – cutting off even more users’ electricity, rather than rolling between its customers. Even ERCOT’s worst case scenario plan had underestimated the reality it was now facing.

Blake Burchard, an external affairs manager at AEP in San Angelo, explained why the plan for rolling brownouts became impossible. All customers are connected to a circuit with a breaker and are considered a load. Those loads get prioritized based on who or what is connected to the load. Some loads are characterized as critical, and the company tries to refrain from turning off circuits that have “hospitals, nursing homes, any kind of care facilities, as well as water and wastewater treatment,” Burchard said.

The company was reluctant to add power outages in those critical or essential locations on Monday, planning to roll outages between less essential loads. But as ERCOT requested more and more “load shed,” AEP had to consider shutoffs even for those “essential” services. “Right now, we’re trying to determine what feeds can stand it that were previously labeled critical,” Burchard said on Tuesday.

Burchard also said the company looks at which breakers have bigger shares of energy consumption, turning off the ones that offered the biggest “bang for your buck.”

In Marfa, where there are two breakers, the one for the south side consumes the larger share of energy and has “most of the load,” according to George Salgado, the supervisor of AEP’s Marfa distribution system. Salgado explained, “All our businesses, the restaurants, two Stripes, the grocery stores, Border Patrol –– all those big businesses carry most of the load.” And all of them are on the south breaker. The north breaker is all residential, except for the Marfa schools.

While residents lost power, generators were tripping off the system, too. In a Tuesday conversation with WFAA in Dallas, Governor Greg Abbott said natural gas providers were warning his office that natural gas is “just frozen right now. It’s frozen in the pipeline. It’s frozen at the rig. It’s frozen at the transmission line.”

Instrumentation on natural gas pipelines was freezing up. Natural gas was unable to flow as easily under the extreme temperatures. Some wind turbines iced over and snow blocked off solar panel power generation. Together, it created a dangerously low level of available energy for consumption.

Dan Woodfin, the senior director of system operations for ERCOT explained at a press conference on Tuesday that weatherization for generators is voluntary at this time, “but there are significant financial penalties in the ability to generate during conditions like this.” Those penalties aren’t fines and fees though, and they aren’t handed down from a regulatory agency or the State of Texas.

Woodfin was instead suggesting the penalty is that companies are missing out on the economic boom that happens when scarcity takes hold and the market drives up the price for what little electricity is available. Those companies that manage to stay online are able to profit handsomely, while those generators that trip offline will miss out on the cashflow.

“If you’ve got a generator not on the grid during that time, you’re not making a profit,” he said. There aren’t penalties or fines for being off, “just financial losses if you’re not in during the high times,” Woodfin said. “The incentives are aligned with reliability.” On the Tuesday press conference, Bill Magness, ERCOT CEO, reaffirmed, “We have best practices, not winterization requirements and fines at this time.”

Since the grid doesn’t cross state lines, it has intentionally avoided oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But the federal government has weighed in on the condition of the grid before, because Texas has previously battled weather’s effects on the grid. The federal government wrote reports after a smaller 2011 outage, recommending the state increase its reserve power and add cold-weather weatherization.

Retired Marfa resident Laura Doll worked in the public and private sectors of the energy industry for decades, and at one point was chair of the ERCOT board. Having worked through the 2011 outages in Texas, Doll doubted whether the particularly extreme events of this week could’ve been foreseen. But she believed the coming fallout in the industry is predictable. By Tuesday, Governor Abbott had already called for an investigation into the event by the Texas Legislature.

“We had a similar severe winter weather outage, and there were legislative hearings, and I believe everyone pledged to do better,” Doll said, referencing the industry going through the smaller 2011 outages in Texas. “They’ll talk about better winterization of power plants, but really, who’s going to pay for that? Nobody wants higher cost power,” she said. “The so-called fixes will undoubtedly require funding and there will be a lot of hard choices to make.”

“Texas as I understand it, doesn’t really have a specific hard requirement for a certain amount of reserve capacity, because if you’re going to require it, you have to pay for it,” Doll said. “They have hoped that the market would take care of that –– and sometimes it doesn’t.”

In the meantime, as Marfa residents dealt with the continuing consequences of extreme weather conditions clashing with an unprepared electric grid, the one remaining public space left with electricity, the Marfa ISD school campus, had turned into a warming center for those left in the cold.

At first, few gathered in the school’s cafeteria, but as the hours and days wore on, many sought refuge at the school tables distanced through the room. Some arrived to connect to wifi and get work done. Others needed to charge a cell phone. On Tuesday, The Get Go and Marfa’s Porter’s grocery store donated perishable goods to the cafeteria, where volunteers have since been serving up free hot meals.

On Tuesday night, AEP Texas announced it had rotated some of its outages across South and West Texas, “but challenges on the grid due to insufficient generation prevented us from rotating many of those impacted,” their social media accounts read. “Crews remain ready to restore electric service to our customers as soon as power is available.”

By Wednesday morning, more than 48 hours into the outages in Marfa, ERCOT was once again demanding AEP Texas turn off electricity for more customers. “Please prepare for more power outages and expect current power outages to continue,” the company announced. On Tuesday and Wednesday, as the winter storm swept east across Texas, major population centers and many energy generators were hit by more cold weather. Forecasts for the coming days promised low temperatures would persist throughout the state.

As The Big Bend Sentinel prepared to go to press, power was restored to the south side of Marfa. Local AEP officials were not immediately available to say if there was a chance either part of Marfa could be shed again.