What caused the deadly power outages in Texas and how Canada’s grid compares

Millions of people in Texas were left shivering without power, heat and running water for several days this week and at least 30 died after a severe winter storm crippled power plants and the electricity grid.

The storm hit late last weekend, blasting parts of the southern U.S. with snow, sleet, freezing rain and temperatures as low as -20 C. It knocked out power and forced some utilities to implement rolling blackouts in other states as well.

But, as The Associated Press reported, “the worst U.S. power outages by far have been in Texas,” where 4.7 million homes and businesses lost power Monday, and millions remained without power through much of the week. The outages have cost lives, with some people dying from the cold, and others from carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to keep warm.

WATCH |  Southern U.S. hit by severe winter storm:

Southern U.S. hit by severe winter storm

8 days agoVideo2:17A severe winter storm is bringing snow and freezing temperatures to U.S. states as far south as Texas. The unusual weather is affecting more than 150 million people, causing power outages and deadly traffic pile-ups across dozens of states. 2:17

Here’s a closer look at the factors that took down the grid in Texas, and how they compare here in Canada as climate change increases the risk of extreme weather events.

Why so much of Texas lost power

Two things happened at the same time in Texas, a state that doesn’t often have to deal with severe winter weather.

  • There was a record demand for power to heat homes and keep warm — unusual in the winter for Texas, which typically sees higher demand in summer due to air conditioning.
  • That coincided with a loss of power generation from plants that weren’t equipped to deal with the extreme cold.

The combination forced utilities to impose “controlled outages,” or rotating blackouts, to stop customers from outstripping supplies.

But beyond those very direct causes, a number of other factors were in play that prevented Texas from being prepared for the storm, experts say.

Abilene, Texas, Mayor Anthony Williams addresses the media, along with city manager Robert Hanna, during a news conference on Monday at the darkened city hall. All three of the city’s water treatment plants lost power and shut down. (Ronald W. Erdrich /The Abilene Reporter-News via AP)

Power system wasn’t prepared for extreme weather

While most power plants in Canada are designed for winter weather and housed in buildings, that’s not the case in Texas, said Emily Grubert, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in an interview with CBC’s The Current.

“They might not have walls even, in quite the same way,” she said. “They might not have insulated pipes.… The whole grid was subject to extreme conditions that it was not designed to handle.”

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