Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Monday that his number one priority is looking out for the approximately 1.2 million CenterPoint Energy customers across the greater Houston area who have lost electricity in the widespread power outages that have gripped the entire state of Texas during the ongoing winter storm.
But after all those folks get their power restored and heaters flowing again, Turner believes the Electric Reliability Council of Texas will have some serious explaining to do for how things got to this point.
Especially when the news came through that residents who don't have power now probably won't see it restored until Tuesday at the earliest — raising all sorts of questions about the planning by energy officials in charge of keeping residents safe in their homes.
“I think when this is over, we will need to have a conversation, a serious conversation, as to why we are where we are today,” Turner said. “But where we are today is getting people through this crisis.”
Turner used the afternoon press briefing to remind locals that getting power restored in the city isn’t something a mayor can do just by snapping his fingers. “I’ve seen some of the social [media] tweets and others saying ‘Mayor, please turn on the heat.’ That is not within my purview...as for the electric grid, that’s on the state level.” He said that even two of the city’s warming shelters had lost power on Monday as well.
Attempting to explain the widespread outages as best he could, Turner said the issue is the combination of massive electricity demand from chilly Texans in all 254 of the state’s counties coupled with the fact that the historically cold weather has caused power-generating windmills to freeze up and stop spinning, and somehow brought an entire nuclear power plant to its knees.
“There are a number of generation plants that have been taken offline, like your wind turbines that are frozen over in various parts of the state,” Turner explained. “One of our nuclear plants had to be taken off line, so there’s a huge demand and a very limited supply. It is a system-wide failure across the state.”
CenterPoint spokeswoman Alejandra Diaz issued a statement Monday cautioning that customers who still don’t have power “should be prepared to be without power for at least the rest of the day.”
“The current estimated number of customers without power due to the request for reduced load is approximately 1.162 million,” Diaz wrote, “while an additional 62,500 customers are without power due to other storm related events.”
“As soon as generating capacity is brought back online, and ERCOT permits, CenterPoint Energy will deploy resources to restore customers. However, the company cautions that if additional generating capacity goes offline, it would negatively impact the electric system, resulting in additional customer outages,” Diaz warned.
Space City Weather’s Matt Lanza wrote in an afternoon post that folks should prepare for even colder weather to envelop the region as soon as Monday night. “Our morning low at both Bush and Hobby was 17 degrees, which is the coldest we’ve registered since the December 1989 cold blast. And we may (probably) dip below that before midnight,” Lanza wrote.
CenterPoint Energy's Executive Vice President for Electric Utility Kenny Mercado told Lanza's colleague Eric Berger that a wave of power plants going offline in the wee hours of Monday morning meant the electric provider had to prioritize the power needs of hospitals, police stations and other "emergency units" ahead of everyday power users, leading to the widespread residential power outages so many are experiencing.
"This obviously is a monumental screw-up by the state of Texas, ERCOT, and the companies responsible for power generation in Texas," Berger wrote. "Why was demand not better anticipated? How are generating plants rated for cold weather production? The list of questions goes on and on."
"There is plenty of blame to go around, as it seems likely that people will lose their lives due to cold, or medical needs for electricity," Berger continued.
Calls have flooded into city emergency services today as sub-freezing temperatures and treacherous roadways have wreaked havoc on the whole Houston region. Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said that as of Monday afternoon, the fire department’s emergency call volume “is up over 50 percent” of its usual rate. “We’re over 800 calls for service at this point, mainly EMS calls,” said Peña.
The phone lines have also been extra busy over at Village Plumbing & Air today. Marketing manager Kelli Victorian told the Houston Press that the local plumbing company had received “almost 400 calls” by 1:40 p.m. “At that pace, we’ll probably be more than double our normal call volume in one day,” she said.
Victorian said most of the calls coming in to Village Plumbing are about frozen pipes, water leaks or burst pipes caused by the icy weather. Village isn’t currently sending crews out on the road due to the dangerous conditions, but has fielded plenty of “virtual service requests.”
“They can pay $29 for a virtual [video] service call,” Victorian explained, “and one of our technicians will call and go over their issue and give them estimates for what may help their situation.” If the virtual plumber isn’t able to walk the customer through the repair process over the video call, then the cost of that appointment will be credited to the eventual repair cost once it’s safe enough to send plumbers out, Victorian said.
Peña, Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo all urged Houstonians to stay off the roads if at all possible, and to try to make do by bundling up in extra layers to stay warm if you’ve lost power if at all possible.
With temperatures expected to get even frostier overnight, that new wave of frigid cold could cause melted snow to re-freeze and could create even more dangerous road conditions.
“Especially as soon as the sun comes down, we know that it’s going to get from bad to worse,” Acevedo explained.
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