What the 2021 Texas freeze is teaching other states about infrastructure changes needed for winter weather

Winter Weather Texas Power Failures eletrical grid
Posted at 3:45 PM, Feb 16, 2022

AUSTIN, Texas — The kitchen at Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas operates like a well-oiled machine. However, things were a bit more chaotic a year ago when the state experienced a freeze.

General Manager Jenna Paul says business stopped being the priority and the devotion to the community began.

“After we lost power, we actually opened up for the community. We had our chefs cooking in headlamps and we made free food for the community with all that product we had," Paul said. “I just remember after driving employees whose cars weren’t even moving from their parking spots, I was out until about 4 in the morning driving people home. It was a complete ghost town, no one on the roads, or anything.”

The beginning of February this year came with another warning.

"It was like another ice storm coming so a lot of PTSD," Paul said.

Michael Webber teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He says states create their power grids to serve the highest demand.

“A year ago, we had this energy crisis that left hundreds of people dead and tons of billions of dollars in energy bills and so Texas decided to take some action," Webber said. “In a place like Vermont or northern states where it’s really cold and they have a lot of electric heating, they would design the system to have peak performance in the winter. And the difference is you would design your power plant to keep the heat in Minnesota, whereas in Texas we design the power plants to keep the heat out.”

Within the last year, he says Texas winterized its electrical power system and built new power plants to be more robust against the next storm, but there were a lot of things not done.

“We didn’t really take prioritizing in winterizing the gas system... we didn’t really take serious action on energy efficiency or demand response," Webber said. “See how the gas system is critical to the power system and how the power system is critical to the water system and how the water system is critical to human health, all of these things are connected.”

Elsewhere in the country, people in charge of electrical systems have discussed plans to share power across large geographical areas, meaning if a powerful storm hit one state, another state could provide power.

“This is the complication of climate change— is it really upsets all of our planning habits that we’ve built up over decades and centuries," Webber said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler agrees not enough has been done in his state or elsewhere, so he's focusing on bringing his community together in case another widespread need arises.

“When you get to that kind of challenge at that scale, some of the most effective work being done were neighbors helping neighbors, communities helping communities. We have to do a better job of empowering that kind of grassroots response, institutionalizing it into our emergency operations response," Adler said.

He points out that is something other states can strive to emulate.