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What were supposed to be rotating power outages lasting less than an hour have turned seemingly endless across Collin County and statewide as unprecedented winter weather overwhelms the state’s power grid. 

During a press update Monday morning, officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said the outages would last the rest of Monday and possibly all day Tuesday. 

ERCOT, which manages the flow of electric power to over 26 million Texas customers and represents about 90% of the state’s electric load, initiated rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. to conserve electricity, according to a press release Monday.

At 1:56 a.m. Monday, Oncor, which serves 301,739 customers across Collin County, tweeted that due to ERCOT’s request for rolling outages, they were starting rotating outages to “protect the electric grid.” Oncor wrote in the tweet that the outages usually last about 15-45 minutes “but may vary depending on winter weather and grid conditions.”

But, as McKinney Mayor George Fuller wrote in a Facebook post Monday morning, while the state reported that many of the outages would last about a half hour, most are lasting way longer than that. 

So, what is going on, and what can Texans do to keep warm in the meantime?

ERCOT Rotating Outages

ERCOT declared an EEA level 3 around 1:30 a.m. Monday because the electrical demand outweighed the supply, according to a press release from ERCOT. Electrical reserves had dropped below 1,000 Megawatts and were not expected to recover in 30 minutes, which was why ERCOT asked transmission companies to reduce electrical demand via rotating outages.

The rolling outages are done “as a last resort to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole,” according to the press release. They mostly affect small businesses and residential neighborhoods.

The New York Times reported that rotating outages are usually done in Texas during severe heat waves in the summer when people overuse their air-conditioning systems. The last time this process was done during the winter was in February 2011. 

During the press conference, ERCOT Senior Director of Systems Operations Dan Woodfin said the shift from 15-45 minutes to several hours for rotating outages was due to high demand, generators going offline and unavailability of wind turbines. 

“As the evening progressed, we started having these other generators that tripped offline because of the cold weather,” Woodfin said. “Because of the number of generators of this type that tripped offline, in addition to the ones that were already unavailable and the fact that we had a continued high demand all night… we had to implement more of these controlled outages to protect the system as a whole.”

Because of that, what began as rolling blackouts supposed to last for a short period are now “lasting longer than what would normally happen just because of the magnitude of the amount of load shift that’s been required,” Woodfin said.

Woodfin said ERCOT does not think that the outages “in general” will last multiple days. While some outages may last for longer periods, he said most should come back in “a matter of hours.

“But how quick we can reduce the number of outages is really completely dependent on the amount of generation that is currently unavailable that becomes available as the day and night tonight progresses.”

While the generation industry has been improving its winterization of procedures and best practices for events like this over the last decade, what they are experiencing right now is “unprecedented,” Woodfin said. 

“You have to go back to the 1940s or something, I think, to see these kinds of conditions… this event was well beyond kind of the design parameters for a typical or even an extreme Texas winter that you would normally plan for,” Woodfin said.

Collin County Oncor Outages

ERCOT’s role is to coordinate with the different transmission owners across Texas, such as Oncor, and has been doing so on an “almost constant basis” during this winter weather event, Woodfin said. However, the length of outage time is based on each provider. 

At about 9 a.m. Monday, Oncor wrote in a tweet that the expected outage time length of 15-45 minutes “has been significantly extended” due to the severity of the electric generation shortfall. 

“Outages due to this electric emergency could last for hours & we ask you to be prepared,” Oncor wrote in the tweet. 

As of Monday at 10:30 a.m., there were 510 Oncor outages in Collin County affecting 90,752 customers, according to Oncor’s outage map. However, as of about 4:45 p.m. Monday, the outage map showed 401 outages with 118,561 customers affected.

According to a Monday afternoon update from Oncor posted on The Wire, Oncor is unsure when power will be restored. “Given the unique combination of lack of generation and historic winter storm damage, estimated restoration times are not yet known,” Oncor wrote in the update.

Oncor explained in the update that not only are there controlled, rotating outages at the request of ERCOT, but they are also handling separate outages caused by the winter weather. 

In response to why some homes have lost power for hours while others have only lost power for a few minutes or haven’t at all, Oncor wrote that, for areas experiencing controlled power outages, this is because they are trying to keep hospitals and other critical buildings operating. 

“This means that customers near critical facilities, or those in limited areas where rolling outages won’t take place in order to maintain grid stability, may not experience outages, while those farther from these facilities or areas may be out multiple times or for longer instances,” Oncor wrote. 

Oncor also noted in the update that its customers do not need to report outages to them. If anyone is experiencing a life-threatening or emergency situation, Oncor said to call 9-1-1.

Customer Outrage

Oncor’s tweets have also been getting tons of replies from outraged customers — many of whom haven’t had power since 2 or 3 a.m. 

“Welcome to Death Cult, TX… Population us,” @TheReal_AGBeast wrote in a tweet. “Thanks for adequately preparing for a severe weather event that you had advanced notice of @oncor. Rolling blackouts are one thing, outages in extreme cold for 7+ hours on end with no eta on restoration is the definition of incompetent.”

Many also expressed concerns about their elderly friends and family who had been stuck in their freezing cold homes for hours.

“My mother in [zip code] 76126 is 74 years old and hasn’t had power for several hours already,” @EgoistHiveMind wrote in a tweet. “If you don’t do something about this she could die. You warned of brief rolling outages and she hasn’t had heat all day. If you don’t AT LEAST get to ‘rolling’ the outages you’re going to kill her.”

What You Can Do

The City of Plano wrote in a Facebook post that the power outages have affected many stoplights and to treat intersections without working lights as four-way stops. 

If a pipe bursts in your home or business, the city recommends to turn off your water supply. For instructions on how to turn off your water supply, click here.

According to the post, Plano Emergency Management also recommends people prepare themselves, vehicles, pets and homes for the weather:

  • dress in layers, cover exposed skin, limit time outdoors and check on family members.
  • keep your car’s gas tank half-full, blankets in your car, and maintain your vehicle’s tire pressure. Pack a safety kit in your car, notify family if you’re traveling and use caution if you leave your car running. 
  • prepare your pets by limiting their time outdoors, bring outdoor pets inside, cover and check their paws and their food and water supply and provide them shelter.
  • drip all faucets slowly, monitor your furnace and use caution with heaters. 

If you are one of those without power across the state, Oncor tweeted out an infographic from the National Weather Service that details a few things people can do to stay warm while the power is out, including:

  • Closing the blinds or curtains
  • Closing off rooms
  • Wearing layers of loose-fitting, lightweight and warm clothing
  • Eating and drinking to give yourself energy but avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • Stuffing towels or rags in cracks under doors

If you still have power, please be aware that you could still lose power at any time. For the time being, to help conserve power, ERCOT asks that you:

  • Turn down your thermostat to 68 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Close your shades and blinds
  • Turn off and unplug non-essential lights and appliances
  • Avoid using large appliances, such as ovens and washing machines
  • If you own a business, minimize electric lighting use and electricity-consuming equipment
  • Any entity that is a large consumer of electricity should consider shutting down completely or reducing non-essential production processes

Bailey Lewis

Bailey Lewis is a freelance journalist based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She recently graduated from the University of Oklahoma and served as the news editor and enterprise editor of the OU Daily. Previously,...