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Host Of Winter Storm-Related Problems Plague San Antonio


The nationwide cold snap is setting record low temperatures across the country. In some places, it's as much as 40 degrees colder than normal. And the power grid in the central U.S. is under strain. Electric utilities in 14 states were ordered today to begin controlled rolling blackouts. Texas has been hit especially hard, both by winter weather and by blackouts. Ice there has taken wind turbines offline. And Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios is among more than 2 million people making do with sporadic electric service. He joins us now from his home in San Antonio.



CHANG: So I feel a little bad talking to you from sunny Los Angeles because, I mean, Texas is not known for its cold weather. Just how bad is it there?

PALACIOS: So far from it - just like LA, we are very much used to heat. In fact, this type of cold weather has not been seen here since 1989.

CHANG: Yeah.

PALACIOS: Since early Sunday, we've had ice on the road. Last night, there was major snowfall here in San Antonio. We had at least 4 inches, and that hasn't been seen in over 36 years. We've even had subzero wind chills. We got down to negative 4 and negative 6 in some parts of San Antonio. And as I mentioned, people aren't really prepared for this. You know, not everybody has an ice scraper in their car. Heavy coats really aren't much of a thing here. So as this weather started getting intense, it really started putting demand on the state's power grid.

CHANG: Well, how has the state's energy grid operator responded so far?

PALACIOS: Early in the day yesterday, ERCOT, which is the grid's manager, started asking a conservation of energy. But last night, things started to get really bad. The highest level emergency is rolling blackouts, and that hardly ever happens. I think the last time it actually happened here was about 10 years ago. And so what ERCOT does is it goes to all of the state's utilities, like CPS Energy here in San Antonio or Austin Energy in Austin, and they start asking the utilities to offload the system. And it starts pretty small. You know, maybe a few people here and there start to get like some short blackouts - maybe like 15, 20 minutes or so - some maybe a little longer.

My power started going out at 2 o'clock in the morning yesterday. At first, it was, like, nine minutes. Then the second blackout was, like, 15 minutes. My third blackout was 2 1/2 hours long. And ever since then, it's been sporadic. So far - and I've been counting - I've had 18 power outages that have been from anywhere from two hours to about 40 minutes. So it has been...


PALACIOS: It has been a very interesting day.

CHANG: I can imagine.

PALACIOS: And I'm not alone. This is happening to people all over Texas.

CHANG: Right. Well, how is the power grid operator explaining these rolling blackouts to customers?

PALACIOS: It has to do with the state losing some capacity to be able to produce some of its power. So here's Dan Woodfin. He's senior director of System Operations for ERCOT, and he's trying to explain what happened in a conference call earlier today.


DAN WOODFIN: Beginning around 11 p.m., multiple generating units began tripping offline in somewhat rapid progression due to the severe cold weather. As a result of this decreasing supply and the continued high demand, we began to see diminishing reserves.

PALACIOS: So that's basically the ability of some companies to generate power. That includes natural gas and even coal generators, and that's what started triggering this level-three emergency through ERCOT. And even Texas Governor Greg Abbott has backed this up, saying, though, that the Texas power grid has not been compromised, and they are working to try to get power back to everybody. So right now ERCOT and the state's public utility commission are putting a priority on residential customers.

CHANG: So how long are these blackouts expected to last?

PALACIOS: ERCOT said that these rolling outages are going to last at least through today, possibly through tomorrow. And today, Governor Abbott said that he's deploying the National Guard across Texas to conduct welfare checks and help get people in need to one of 135 warming centers in the state.

CHANG: All right. That is Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios.

Thank you.

PALACIOS: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.