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In mid February, a massive winter storm overwhelmed much of North America, knocking out power grids in the freezing weather. In Texas, the hardest hit state, more than 4.3 million homes and businesses lost their electricity.

With roads covered in ice and snow, grocery stores’ shelves soon emptied. Refrigerated foods were lost, and cooking without electricity or gas was problematic. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops were ruined by the extreme cold, and dairy farmers had to pour their milk down the drain for lack of transport.

Burst pipes disrupted drinking water supplies. People were told to boil their water, but power outages made it difficult.

But, hold on! Texas is a warm state, isn’t it? Shouldn’t climate change - global warming - be making it warmer still? How did it get so cold?

Well, two things. First, climate change (yes!). The heating of the Arctic is disrupting global climate systems. Cold air is normally concentrated around the north pole in the polar vortex, an area of low pressure that circulates in a tight formation in the stratosphere during winter. A circulating jet stream normally holds it in place. But the warming of the Arctic is apparently causing the jet stream to shift, wobble and disrupt the polar vortex, thus releasing frosty polar air down into Europe and even down to the US-Mexico border.

Here is a more complete discussion of the phenomena.

So although winters are generally growing milder, we’re going to see cold days and the polar vortex can mean those days might be bitterly cold.

In the US, storms carried heavy snow and freezing rain into New England and the deep south, bringing painfully low temperatures and disabling power grids. People died from hypothermia and from misplaced efforts to keep warm, notably from carbon monoxide poisoning. The worst power outages were in Texas where the state energy grid repeatedly failed, forcing rolling blackouts.

But Texas is the nation’s leading energy-producing state, with oil, natural gas, wind, and four nuclear reactors. How could Texas run out of energy?

Well, Texas, the “lone star state”, likes to feel independent. Texans don’t like regulation.

Part of the responsibility for the near-collapse of the state’s electrical grid can be traced to a 1999 decision in favour of electrical deregulation, handing control of the state’s entire electricity delivery system to a market-based patchwork of private generators, transmission companies and energy retailers. Texas also isolated itself from the national grid.

Power plants began falling offline in rapid succession as they were overcome by the frigid weather or ran out of fuel. Within hours, 40 percent of the power supply had been lost.

Texas's energy mix includes 18,705 MWh Natural Gas, 4,823 MWhs Coal, 3,548 MWhs Nuclear and 8,317 MWhs renewables. So the state is highly dependent on Natural gas. Gas production froze, and so did the pipelines that transport it. Once power plants went offline, they were not prepared to restart in the below-freezing conditions.

At the same time, demand for natural gas to heat homes and businesses also spiked, contributing to shortages. And high gas prices further disrupted generation, as operators who could not turn a profit took their plants offline.

Several coal plants were also knocked offline by cold temperatures. Wind turbines froze too.

One of Texas’ four nuclear facilities was automatically cut off due to a disruption in a feedwater pump, although the reactor itself suffered no damage.

Some Texas families are suing the state’s power companies for negligence. The companies are facing major scrutiny for the blackouts as well as cases where some customers are receiving sky-high bills for their usage.

Cristian Pineda, age 11, sadly died in his family’s mobile home deprived of electricity and heat during two days of sub-freezing weather. Cristian had been excited to see snow for the first time after moving to Texas from Honduras in 2019. His death is one of dozens of Texas’ cold weather tragedies.

Tony Buzbee, the Pineda family's lawyer, has said he now represents seven families who lost loved ones. "Despite having knowledge of the dire weather forecast for at least a week in advance, and the knowledge that the system was not prepared for more than a decade, Ercot and Entergy failed to take any pre-emptory action that could have averted the crisis and were wholly unprepared to deal with the crisis at hand," he said.

- Julie Wornan

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