While shoppers in other Texas big cities faced long lines and empty shelves at grocery stores, Robert Gomez breezed right into his local Albertsons in El Paso on Wednesday. The store was fully stocked, and more importantly, had functioning lights and heat. The fifty-year-old graphic designer found the same at the Food King store he visited afterward. Besides having to step over residual snow sludge on streets and sidewalks, El Pasoans like Gomez were experiencing few aftereffects of a historic winter storm that brought the city subfreezing temperatures and three inches of snow and ice.
Scrolling through Twitter that same day, Gomez found himself wishing he could do something to help when he saw pictures and videos of what so many fellow Texans were experiencing—bursting pipes, falling ceilings, flooding, and freezing homes. “TEXAS! Head west, far west,” he tweeted. “Our grid is up in El Paso, and we welcome anyone that needs a respite from this frigid chaos. Hotels, shelters, and hope.”
When the winter storms that paralyzed most of Texas first blew through El Paso on February 14, only about 3,000 people in the city had a power outage in their homes, and more than 2,000 of those saw their power restored within just five minutes. No homes in this city of 682,000 residents spent days without power or heat—an experience common to millions throughout the rest of the state. Although this winter storm didn’t hit El Paso as severely as it did other parts of the state, the conditions were similar to those during a February 2011 storm that devastated the city. It’s thanks to the preparations that El Paso made in response to that disaster, as well as its operating on a different electric grid than the majority of Texas, that the city had a starkly different experience during the last awful week for the state.
Because of the vast distance that separates El Paso from Texas’s other major population centers, and because its customer base includes parts of southern New Mexico, the power supply of the city’s public utility isn’t linked to the grid overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electric load. Instead, it’s connected to the Western Interconnection grid, which spans fourteen states in the West, along with parts of Canada and Mexico. As a consequence, when the winter freeze hit Texas, El Paso Electric had a sizable safety net. In addition to its local plants, it drew on Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona to meet the surge in customer demand as people cranked up their thermostats.
Meanwhile, ERCOT’s grid purposefully remains within the state’s boundaries in order to avoid federal energy regulations. When power it was counting on from wind, nuclear, and natural gas sources was adversely affected by the wintry conditions, ERCOT couldn’t fall back on help from neighboring states. “There’s been a tremendous amount of supply disruptions,” said Steve Buraczyk, El Paso Electric’s senior vice president of operations. “It’s difficult for them to try to deal with that just within ERCOT.”
The other big difference for El Paso Electric is that all of its power plants were outfitted for a deep freeze. After that February 2011 storm, hundreds of thousands of the utility’s customers were left without power for extended periods. In the years since, it has spent millions to prepare for the next extreme winter event, including $4.5 million on adapting many of its existing facilities for prolonged operation in freezing temperatures. The winterization of a power plant is similar to preparing your house for winter, except much more expensive. Valves, transmitters, and pipelines, along with other areas of a plant that could be affected by freezing temperatures, have insulation added or heat lamps installed nearby.
The company also built the Montana Power Station, completed in 2016, which can continue to operate in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. On normal days, the $380 million power station uses natural gas to power about 160,000 homes. But during emergency situations, the station has the capability as well to burn fuel oil when natural gas supplies might be limited. El Paso Electric built the power plant’s dual-fuel capability with extreme, rare situations in mind, but relied on it sooner than planned. “Here we are, five years later, having to use it,” Buraczyk said.
Many other Texas power companies ignored the voluntary winterization guidelines that ERCOT issued following the widespread 2011 outages, despite a report released that year by federal regulators that stated such steps were necessary.
Being part of the Western Interconnect, El Paso Electric has an additional incentive to winterize because it’s part of an interstate network and can sell excess energy out-of-state during winter months, says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the chief energy officer at the University of Houston, who is an expert on energy systems. On the other hand, most Texas power generators actually have a disincentive to make expensive modifications to prepare for a once-in-a-blue-moon winter storm. “Winterizing is a significant cost. Moreover, if you make energy a scarcity, then you can charge more,” Krishnamoorti said. “It’s a very cynical way of looking at it, but in the end, it is a marketplace.”
While ERCOT can recommend that power companies make improvements, it does not have the legal authority to require generators to winterize. That’s left up to the Texas Legislature and other state agencies. (In the days following the blackouts, Governor Greg Abbott called on the Legislature to consider approving a statewide winterization mandate.) While some legislators have pointed their fingers at ERCOT or have used the blackouts to blame wind and renewable energy, much of the responsibility actually lies with the lawmakers themselves, according to Krishnamoorti. “This is not a pin the tail on the donkey issue. This is a systematic failure,” he said. “It’s an abject failure of policy and planning, not of technology.”
Not all experts agree that deregulation is the root of the problem. Carey King, the assistant director of the University of Texas’s Energy Institute, says Texas doesn’t need to change its market rules to ensure the ERCOT grid is more reliable. “We need to make a change in policy to fix the situation,” King said. “The simplest way is probably to have a separate policy that mandates winterization and that has an independent verification process.” Yet even if lawmakers approve a winterization mandate this Legislative session, it will be cold comfort to the millions of Texans who went without power and heat for extended periods this week.
Meanwhile, in El Paso on Thursday, Gomez looked out his window and noticed that he no longer saw ice on his neighbors’ roofs. Schools held class, gas stations were open, and roads were usable. “In El Paso, everything is working as planned,” he said. “I’m exasperated to see how the rest of Texas is suffering on such a grand scale.”