Let there be light- or independence? – What happened in Texas and why

People wait in line to fill propane tanks, in Houston. Image Credit: AP

On February 16 and 17, 2021, millions of people living in the state of Texas were affected by aberrant, statewide power outages and were left stranded with no connection to electricity. Texans had no source of heat amid unbearably frigid temperatures. Many tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning, house fires, car crashes, and hypothermia.

To understand what happened in Texas, one must understand of two key factors: 1) where the cold weather came from and 2) how national electrical lines work.

Each year, icy arctic air that exists in the Earth’s jet stream dips into the northern half of the U.S. This phenomenon is known as the polar vortex and is by no means unusual- it’s what brings the coldest air to the upper parts of the U.S. during the winter. This year, however, the polar vortex dipped unusually far south and hit states like Oklahoma and Texas. When the polar vortex hit, temperatures dropped to dangerously low levels, and- to complicate matters even more- a violent storm swept over parts of the states (referred to as Winter Storm Uri).

Despite affecting multiple states, however, the storm only caused parts of Texas to lose power (over four million Texans for almost five days). When the VTHS Environmental Awareness Club reviewed this data, we were perplexed. Both the polar vortex and the storm hit a large part of the U.S., so why was Texas the only state that suffered such a dramatic- even deadly- power outage? 

The key to understanding what happened in Texas comes with understanding how Americans access electricity. When you plug your phone into the charger, the electricity used to charge your phone comes from something called the power grid. The power grid is a network of electrical transmission lines that allows electricity to flow from state to state using multiple energy sources like nuclear power plants, wind farms, and natural gas facilities. There are two primary power grids in the U.S., one that covers the entire east coast, from Canada to Florida, and another that covers the entire west coast. These two grids allow electricity to flow from far away places, so the source of a state’s electricity wouldn’t be restricted to local producers. During emergencies, accordingly, these expansive grids allow for power to be directed from one state to another. The state of Oklahoma, for example, was hit fairly badly this past February, so when local energy sources stopped working, the state was able to access electrical energy from other states via the grid. But why didn’t this happen in Texas?

1935 was the year President Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which gave the federal government the ability to regulate the two national power grids. When this act was issued, though, Texas opted out, refusing to be a part of the federally-controlled, interstate power lines.

Historically speaking, Texas has always been reluctant to offer the federal government excessive power and has always tried to maintain as much independence as possible (seen here). Nearly a century before the signing of the Federal Power Act, in 1836, Texas declared independence from Mexico and spent nine years as its own nation. Only in 1845 did Texas join the United States once Congress authorized the Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas. Sixteen years later, Texas seceded from the Union over tensions regarding slavery and state rights. So it is understandable, historically speaking, that Texas decided to not be a part of the federally-regulated, interstate power grids. Because of this, Texas created an independent power grid that nearly all of the state relies on. This means that Texas isn’t obligated to follow federal mandates and regulations like the rest of the country, but it also means that when Texas lost power during the storm, it couldn’t easily get electricity from other states. In an unfortunate turn of events, Texas’ independence is what left it stranded. 

*Much of the the research reported in this article was investigated and observed by Valley Torah Environmental Awareness Club.  

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