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Power Outages Continue As Texas Electric Grid Struggles Through Cold Snap

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Texas, millions of people are enduring their third day without electricity in freezing cold temperatures. Diana Gomez says it's gotten down to 50 degrees inside her house in Austin. She and her boyfriend have been focused on staying warm and figuring out how to make food without power.

DIANA GOMEZ: We'd had some leftover chili we'd made a few days ago. And my boyfriend has a tiny, little fire-starter. And so he just went out back behind the apartment and lit a fire using the cardboard we have from all of our Amazon boxes.

CHANG: Anne Hebert is also in Austin, where she took care of her 88-year-old neighbor who lives alone.

ANNE HEBERT: She had piled all of her blankets on top of her. She had gotten the extra sweatshirts out of her closet and put those on her bed, but she's not equipped to handle a situation like that. She's got Parkinson's. She uses a walker.

CHANG: Hebert has since found her neighbor a warmer place to stay. And joining us now to talk about the blackouts and what comes next is Mose Buchele from member station KUT in Austin.

Hey, Mose.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Hey. How are you doing?

CHANG: Hey. So clearly a lot of people right now are facing very severe challenges from this ongoing blackout. Has anything improved today?

BUCHELE: I mean, I wish I could say it has but not really. I mean, if anything, it seems like it's gotten worse because it's just gone on for so long now. It's...

CHANG: Yeah.

BUCHELE: It's still freezing cold. The problem is that this weather just froze all sorts of the stuff that we need for heat and electricity. It froze natural gas wells, so they couldn't produce gas. It froze the lines that bring the gas to power plants. Wind turbines also froze up. Power grid operators are saying that they're getting some of these power plants back online, but then others will break down. So you might get your power restored, and then it kicks off again. And this just keeps going on like that.

CHANG: I mean, the irony here is that Texas is a state that's basically synonymous with energy, right? It's the biggest energy producer in the country. And so there are so many questions still about how this massive failure happened in a state like Texas.

BUCHELE: Yeah. I mean, I think you're touching on something that's really unique to this state, right? A lot of people here take a real pride in our energy industry and kind of, like, energy leadership, so to speak. So this kind of failure really stings probably more in Texas than it would in another state. And as you can imagine, there's also just a lot of finger-pointing going on right now. The governor, Greg Abbott, has said that he wants to reform this group, ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas - it's the group that manages the grid. And then you have the grid managers basically saying that it's the power plants that need to get back online. And then, of course, everyone's just talking about this weather. Everything here is built to withstand the intense summer heat of Texas. None of our energy infrastructure was built for this. And in 2011, a big winter storm came through, and a federal report said that Texas should be doing more to winterize its energy infrastructure. And so people are talking about that now, too, and saying that we have to improve those standards and that, probably, we should have improved those standards before a storm like this one hit.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, Texas is unique in that it has its own independent electrical grid. Did that factor into these blackouts in any way?

BUCHELE: And that's another thing that people are talking about now and I'm sure, you know, we'll be talking about for months to come. Texas having its own grid - it means that it doesn't have to submit to federal regulations in the same way that most other places do. And this is also a deregulated energy market here in Texas. Power generators basically sell electricity on the open market to power companies and utilities, so they don't really build more power plants or wind farms than they think will be needed. So that will probably get some scrutiny after this as well. There are also questions about the market incentives around natural gas. When the gas supply here plummeted, the price went through the roof, and people are wondering if that high price maybe stopped some generators from operating.

CHANG: Yeah. OK, so there's clearly a lot to rethink going forward. But in the meantime, for everyone who's suffering through this right now, how soon do you think it will be before most people start getting their power back?

BUCHELE: It really underlines how powerless we are here to say that we're mostly just hoping for the weather to improve. Once it warms up, power plants will have an easier time coming back online. People won't need as much electricity. But that's going to be a gradual process. Before things get back to normal, they'll start rotating these blackouts in a more traditional way. And this may start happening soon so that maybe you'll get electricity for an hour or two, then lose it for an hour, then it comes back on again.

Then there are also other challenges. Burst pipes is one. Water pressure has become a problem in a lot of homes. A lot of people are under boil-water notices on top of having no electricity. Then there's this stuff that we might not even notice until after the power is back on, right? Ice on trees could have brought power lines down. So even if energy is restored to your neighborhood, maybe it can't even get to your house.

CHANG: That is Mose Buchele with member station KUT in Austin.

Thank you.

BUCHELE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.