Authorities failed to prepare for the weather despite warnings.
When Rafay Khan, 30, woke up at 6am on Monday he felt an uncomfortable chill in his apartment in Dallas, Texas. At first he thought something was wrong with the thermostat. But he soon realised the problem was much worse.
A brutal weather system of snow storms knocked off the power infrastructure in much of Texas, leaving four million Americans stuck in their homes without electricity and heating for days.
Khan, like many others, lives in a building that relies on electricity for not just powering appliances but also keeping the place warm and for running basic essentials like the stove.
“The next 24 hours into Tuesday morning were very tough. I couldn’t go out because roads were all closed. Fortunately, I had a few snacks to survive on,” he told TRT World.
“I was literally wearing every piece of clothing that I own to keep myself warm.”
Authorities in Texas, particularly the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which oversees much of the power system, are facing a public backlash as questions are being raised as to why officials hadn’t prepared in advance despite several warnings of extreme weather.
The sub-freezing conditions have not just led to blackouts but created a water shortage with people waiting hours in lines to fill up cans.
The electricity breakdown has outraged Texans especially as their state accounts for more than 40 percent of US oil output and a large part of the natural gas requirement.
What went wrong?
Energy infrastructure in Texas failed at multiple levels.
To start with, Ercot wasn’t able to foresee that demand for electricity will shoot through the roof as people will switch on heaters to keep themselves warm.
Electricity demand was expected to be 67 gigawatts. Instead it hit 69 gigawatts at the peak usage as the impact of the snowstorm intensified on Sunday. Strained by a higher demand, power plants started to go offline.
Officials say the power machinery in Texas is equipped to deal with extreme heat and droughts - not cold weather.
The blast of extreme cold arctic air that has blanketed large swathes of the US with snow also disrupted gas supply, which is used to produce half of Texas’ electricity.
Freezing temperatures clogged pipelines and froze wellheads, forcing gas producers to retrieve gas supplies from storage -but that wasn’t enough to make up for the shortfall.
A major reason behind the power outages was the way in which Texas runs its electricity grid.
Fiercely independent Texas is not completely connected with the US national grid, which means that it had difficulty importing electricity from other states when demand shot up.
It’s deregulated power system relies on multiple players in the market that manage the three parts of power supply: electricity production, transmission and distribution and sales to end consumers.
What has become obvious is that power companies in the state weren’t prepared to handle an emergency of this scale as the system is geared towards keeping electricity prices competitive, instead of incentivising power companies to invest on the plants and lines.
But with demand outpacing supply, the wholesale price of power has shot up from $22 a megawatt hour to $9000, the highest it can go under the regulations.
“Look, I have lived in Illinois and back in 2014 a polar vortex caused the temperature to drop to minus 10 there. But how things unfolded here was terrible,” said Khan.
“In other states like New York, people are prepared. They have torches and equipment. Texas wasn’t ready for something like this.”
The rolling blackouts which were in place until Thursday have also led to a political tussle with people on Twitter calling out Republican Senator Ted Cruz for flying to Cancun, Mexico, a place known for its beaches, when people were suffering in his state.
“It’s really frustrating to see what’s happening. On the one hand you are sending a rover to Mars and on the other you can’t deal with the power supply at home,” said Khan.