The cold snap that has hit the southern United States since the start of the week has deprived hundreds of thousands of Texans of electricity.
An icy storm, a spectacular surge in electricity consumption and major failures in energy production have paralyzed Texas for almost a week now. More than 250,000 homes were still without electricity, this Friday, in this state, however, the country’s largest producer of natural gas and oil.
That’s not all: while pipes began to burst under the effect of the frost, the Texans also made the taps run. Now the water levels are low and could even be hazardous to health. The authorities asked the population to boil their water in order to make it drinkable. Adding a little more to the overconsumption of electricity. “The water pressure is very low. Please do not turn on the water to prevent the pipes from bursting,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Wednesday morning.
These failures also affect companies and hospitals mobilized against Covid-19. According to the Washington Post, several establishments would refuse patients in order to limit their water consumption. “For Texas hospitals, this is an emergency in addition to a pandemic,” Carrie Williams of the Texas Hospital Association said in an email, quoted by the American daily on Friday. “They are now on the front lines with broken pipes, dwindling supplies and water restrictions.”
- Several power plants affected by the cold
A mass of arctic air plunged large portions of the United States into freezing cold, with temperatures up to 20 degrees below seasonal norms. Across the United States, the storm claimed the lives of at least 30 people. Texas was no exception. Several power plants running on natural gas, wind energy or nuclear power and supplying cities like Austin or Houston have seen their operation disrupted by these extreme conditions in recent days.
What rather annoy the political representatives. The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, lambasted the handling of the crisis by Ercot, the company in charge of energy distribution in the state. In a statement released on Tuesday, he said the group had “been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.” “Far too many Texans are deprived of electricity or heating at a time when our state faces freezing temperatures and harsh winter weather. This is unacceptable,” criticized the official, who has launched an investigation into Ercot.
The federal agency in charge of electricity and natural gas tariffs has also announced that it will look into the reasons for the power cuts “in the coming days”. But some experts believe that the problem is above all structural. “Ercot cannot invest in equipment. It can only manage the network,” recalls Ed Hirs, professor of economics at the University of Houston.
- The limits of the Texan model
For Ed Hirs, Texas, which usually peaks in energy activity in late summer, was unprepared for such a cold snap. “There are not enough generators planned for the winter to meet a strong increase in demand,” he explains.
The energy lung of the United States, Texas is by far the largest producer of crude oil and natural gas in the country, but is also a heavyweight in wind and solar power. Attached to its independence in this area, it is the only state whose distribution network operates in a vacuum, which prevents it from importing energy from the rest of the country. The current crisis highlights the limits of this system.
“It is a warning to the whole world that even regions where energy is abundant can encounter problems and it can be catastrophic”, summarizes Michael Webber, professor at the University of Texas and director of science and technology at Engie. , in Paris.
- Wind power under fire from critics
Several conservative voices have pointed to the supposedly dominant role of renewable energies as the main factor behind power cuts. The Republican deputy of Texas Dan Crenshaw notably attacked on Twitter the alleged unreliability of wind power, an energy “too subsidized” for his liking. “In short, fossil fuels are the only thing that saves us,” he boasted.
But the comments drew strong reactions, including that of Daniel Cohan, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, who called the MP’s comments “deeply misleading.” “We are facing an energy systems crisis, not just an electricity crisis,” Daniel Cohan wrote on Twitter.
“All of our energy sources have failed. All are vulnerable in one way or another to extreme weather and climatic events,” he added. “None was properly prepared for such bad weather.”