Is Texas finally catching a break?

As I write this on Friday morning in the northeast, more snow is piling up outside, but hopefully, the winter weather is coming to an end in Texas. More than fifty people have died across the south since the freak winter storm struck at the beginning of the week. We’ve been in touch with friends down there who have been without power, heat or potable water for most of the week. But now there are some signs of life coming out of the Lone Star State. Power has been returned to millions, though there are still several hundred thousand homes that are still in the dark. Water is flowing to an increasing number of areas, though boil-water warnings are expected to remain in effect at least until the beginning of next week. And perhaps the best news of all is that the temperatures may be returning to something approaching normal for this time of year. (Associated Press)

Many of the millions of Texans who lost power for days after a deadly winter blast overwhelmed the electric grid now have it back, but the crisis was far from over in parts of the South with many people lacking safe drinking water.

About 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power in Texas on Thursday, down from about 3 million a day earlier, though utility officials said limited rolling blackouts were still possible.

The storms also left more than 450,000 from West Virginia to Louisiana without power and 100,000 in Oregon were still enduring a weeklong outage following a massive ice and snow storm.

The tragic tales coming out of Texas are heartbreaking. The AP reports of one entire family that died of carbon monoxide poisoning after they left their car running in a desperate attempt to build up some heat in the house. A fireplace being used for warmth is being blamed for a blaze that killed a grandmother and her three grandchildren.

The drinking water situation also isn’t resolved yet. While water is flowing to many areas now, it’s not safe to drink. But you can’t boil water if your stove runs on natural gas and the gas lines are still frozen. The few stores that are open in some Houston neighborhoods have been stripped clean of bottled water and most food items. Getting trucks in to restock the shelves remains a challenge.

The finger-pointing over how the Texas power grid failed so spectacularly will be going on for a while, but several factors involving the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) are now under scrutiny. First of all, Texas has a stand-alone electric grid. It’s not connected to any neighboring states, so they can’t import power when they unexpectedly shut down. That may need to change in the near future.

More than anything, however, it was the freakish nature of this storm that was to blame. When localized cold snaps impact power production in a few counties, power from other parts of the state can be shipped in to take up the slack. But the entire state froze over this week. ERCOT doesn’t winterize their power generating stations like the utility companies in the northeast and midwest do out of necessity. That’s an expensive investment to make in anticipation of conditions like this that may not happen more than once every few decades. But a storm like this is surely going to come again someday, and they’ve been learning some hard lessons this week. Perhaps that will change.

Texas has a very diverse power generation system, using solar, wind, natural gas, crude oil, hydroelectric, and coal. This storm shut down pretty much all of them except the coal plants, and they couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Let’s keep our brothers and sisters in Texas in our thoughts today. This has been nothing short of a textbook example of a true natural disaster and Texans will be digging out from this one for a while.