In the wake of a record winter storm, millions in the southern US state of Texas – considered the energy capital of the United States – remain without power, as anger among residents is growing by the hour.
“I know people are angry and frustrated,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who woke up to more than one million people still without power in the state’s largest city. “So am I.”
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Power and heat remain out for two to three million homes across Texas, more than 36 hours after historic snowfall and record freezing temperatures created a surge in demand for electricity in a state that rarely experiences such cold weather for extended periods.
Vice President Kamala Harris said in a televised interview she and President Joe Biden will be targeting emergency federal relief for the state.
“I know they can’t see us right now because they’re without electricity. But the president and I are thinking of them, and really hope that we can do everything with that is possible through the signing of the emergency orders to get federal relief to support that,” Harris told US broadcaster NBC on Wednesday.
The cold snap, which has killed 21 people, is not expected to let up until this weekend.
In addition to the bad weather, compounding the problem is a lack of communication about when residents can expect their electricity service to return.
Making matters even worse, expectations that the outages would be a shared sacrifice by the state’s 30 million residents quickly gave way to a cold reality, as pockets in some of the US’s largest cities, including San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, were left to shoulder the lasting brunt of a catastrophic power failure, and in subfreezing conditions that Texas’s grid operators had known was coming.
The breakdown sparked growing outrage and demands for answers over how Texas – whose Republican leaders as recently as last year taunted California over the Democratic-led state’s rolling blackouts caused by wildfires – failed such a crucial test of a major point of state pride: energy independence. And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighbourhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.
“We are very angry. I was checking on my neighbour, she’s angry, too,” Amber Nichols, whose north Austin home has had no power since early Monday, told the Associated Press. “We’re all angry because there is no reason to leave entire neighbourhoods freezing to death.”
“This is a complete bungle,” she said.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott called for an investigation of the grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). His indignation struck a much different tone than just a day earlier, when he told Texans that ERCOT was prioritising residential customers and that power was getting restored to hundreds of thousands of homes.
But hours after those assurances, the number of outages in Texas only rose, at one point exceeding four million customers.
“This is unacceptable,” Abbott said.
Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, told the Associated Press the state’s electric grid fell victim to a cold spell that was longer, deeper and more widespread than Texas had seen in decades.
Climate change should be factored in too, he said.
“We’re going to have to plan for more of this kind of weather. People said this would never happen in Texas, and yet it has.”
Energy sector affected
Meanwhile, the state’s energy sector remains in the dark, with Houston’s main shipping channel closed overnight and at least a fifth of US oil refining output offline.
Electricity prices in Texas continued to surge, as utilities scrambled to meet heating demand. Next-day power prices for Wednesday at the ERCOT North hub, which includes the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, are six times higher than they were on Tuesday.
Texas produces more oil and natural gas than any other US state, and its operators, unlike those in North Dakota or Alaska, are not used to dealing with frigid temperatures.
The Houston ship channel, which had opened for some vessel traffic during Tuesday, was shut again overnight. The 85-kilometre (53-mile) waterway crucial to oil and fuel exports, has been closed since Sunday.
The supply disruptions drove further gains in oil prices on Wednesday, although US natural gas prices eased after rising more than 10 percent on Tuesday.
Nearly four million barrels per day of refining capacity has been knocked out, calculations by the Reuters news agency found.
The cold has also shut natural gas production and pipelines, which refineries use in power generation. Widespread power outages or instability of external power supply can force shutdowns.