The Great Texas Freeze Highlights a New Era of Weather Extremes

By John Banks

As if the wholly unprecedented nature of political events and market extremes were not enough, we now must also contend with an era of weather extremes.

For instance, have you ever heard of a wind-chill warning for North Texas? Probably not, because the U.S. National Weather Service has never issued one — until now.

“The cold wind chills could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes,” the National Weather Service advised shivering Texans. “Avoid outside activities if possible.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth area hit a low of 4 degrees on Monday. Meanwhile the day’s 14-degree high, registered around 4 p.m. at Dallas-Fort Worth International airport, was a full degree lower than the previous all-time low. 

As Texans will tell you, that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. In parts of Texas, it is now colder than Alaska. That isn’t supposed to happen, either. 

Texas has never experienced cold weather this extreme. Nearly 4 million Texas homes and businesses have experienced a loss of power due to rolling blackouts and utility outages, with approximately 650,000 additional homes and businesses facing outages in other states.

Then, too, Texas has not had rolling blackouts in at least a decade — since 2011 — and even then, power outage conditions are generally associated with the hot summer months, not the cold winter months, as air conditioning demand spikes in the midst of a heat wave.

Speaking of heat, 2020 was officially tied with 2016 as the hottest year ever recorded, dating back two full millennia and possibly far longer.

But rising global temperature levels don’t always translate to heat. Sometimes you get the opposite effect, as a result of abrupt shifts in atmospheric pressure and changes to longstanding air flow patterns.

For example, changes in the polar vortex — a large-scale area of low-pressure cold air around the Earth’s poles — have sent a wave of freezing Arctic air across multiple continents to kick off 2021. The global chill began weeks ago: Texans are only the latest group to feel frozen to the bone.

  • In Asia last month, spot rates for liquid natural gas (LNG) jumped 1,700% from the 2020 lows, triggering a spike in European gas prices to 12-year highs.
  • In the United Kingdom, the national grid was forced to issue emergency appeals for generator use, as wholesale electricity prices soared to nosebleed levels above $1,367 per megawatt hour.
  • In China, the lowest temperatures since 1966 are straining the electricity grid via spiking consumer demand for heat, even as LNG delivery and transport is disrupted by frigid weather.
  • In Japan, utilities are asking consumers to cut back on power consumption.
  • In Sweden, the largest single-day snowfall since 2012 left grids disabled and thousands of customers without power in January, forcing Sweden’s main utility to pay for hotel rooms as it struggled to restore power.
  • In Iran and Pakistan, natural gas shortages have triggered rolling blackouts as a result of heightened customer demand in the face of freezing cold.

The deep freeze in Texas is clearly part of a global pattern; the polar vortex is wreaking havoc.

The Texas freeze also matters to the rest of the United States, and the world, because of the direct impact on oil and gas production. Texas is the No. 1 oil and gas producer in the United States. More than 60% of East coast fuel supply comes from the gulf coast region, which is now being shut down by freezing weather.

An estimated 3 million barrels per day of oil-refining capacity has already been shut down, and oil-producing wells are being shut in to prevent water-freeze equipment damage in conditions of extreme cold.

The anticipated impact of the refinery and well shutdowns sent the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil above $60 per barrel, to levels last seen in January 2020 (before the pandemic began).

Texas is having issues with renewable energy, too. Texas is a global leader in wind power, drawing 23% of its total power needs from wind last year — a larger amount than coal — but roughly half the state’s wind energy capacity has been shut down by freezing conditions.

Giant wind turbines can be outfitted with special equipment to stay operational in cold-weather extremes, but Texas never expected to need it. 

The freewheeling nature of the Texas electricity system is also facing severe strain. Hundreds of thousands of Texans are facing crippling spikes in their electricity bills, due to open-ended arrangements where they pay for power at month-to-month spot rates.

Other Texans will find themselves completely without power when they need it most — as the inside of their home or apartment starts feeling like a refrigerator — with their original power provider either buckling under the weight of demand or charging astronomical spot-power rates, even as besieged competitors refuse to sign up new customers.

In terms of downstream consequences, the Texas freeze will add urgency to America’s need for a large-scale power grid overhaul and an overall green energy upgrade.

Texas itself will have to budget for expensive weather-proofing upgrades to its wind power systems, and Texas energy authorities will almost certainly have to deal with fierce consumer backlash after its deregulated electricity system fails a major test.

Then, too, America on the whole will have to prepare for an ongoing series of extreme weather events, and better take into account what that could mean nationwide — and what needs to be done to prepare.

The timing of the Texas freeze, and the hard lessons learned from it, will also play into the rollout of a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package allocated over several years.

A giant infrastructure initiative is likely to be the next big round of stimulus, to follow on the heels of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill now working its way through Congress; the Texas experience will underscore various line items needed to maintain energy security in this new era of extremes.