Texas crisis highlights vulnerability of U.S. power grids: "If this isn't a wake-up call ... I don't know what is"

President Biden assured people in Texas on Friday that the federal government will help them recover in the aftermath of brutal winter weather that hit the state hard last week. Extreme cold left millions without power, heat and running water — highlighting the growing risk to our country's power systems. 

"If this isn't a wake-up call that our current, mainly fossil fuel system isn't serving us, then I don't know what is," said Dan Cohan, professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston. "This put my wife's hospital out of water and working toilets while they were treating carbon monoxide poisonings."

Cohan, who is dealing with survivors' guilt from the storm, said record-breaking weather pushed power demands beyond the worst-case scenario.

"This storm hit every power provider. It hit wind turbines. It knocked out one nuclear unit. It knocked down several of our coal plants. But more than everything else combined, it was a failure of our gas systems, to get enough gas to the power plants, to make electricity when we needed it the most," he said.

Texas is uniquely vulnerable because its electric grid is separate from the two other major grids that serve the U.S., leaving the state unable to borrow power from its neighbors, CBS News' Jamie Yuccas reports. 

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Severin Borenstein, who is on the board of governors for the California Independent System Operator, the nerve center for the electrical system in the state, said Texas failed to plan for the extreme cold — just like California failed to plan for extreme heat last August, when wildfires and heat waves forced rolling power outages.

"I think that even the leaders in Texas who are not ready to accept that climate change is being driven by CO2 emissions are coming around to the realization that we're getting more extreme weather and that they need to plan for that," Borenstein said.

A recent analysis of national power outage data from Climate Central found major power outages caused by extreme weather have increased 67% since 2000. The U.S. experienced a record 22 climate and weather disasters in 2020, each costing at least $1 billion in damages.  

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that ensures the grid's reliability, including in Texas, regulates the interstate transmission of electricity and natural gas. Rich Glick, chairman of the agency, said he believes that people should start demanding answers.

"We certainly know how to operate all these different types of technologies and different types of power plants during extreme weather conditions, but we have to prepare for 'em. That requires investments to be made by utilities and other owners of power plants," he said.

"If you don't make the investments today, you're gonna end up costing, not only in terms of a lot of dollars but costing in terms of lives," he said.

In 2011, FERC issued a report warning Texas to winterize its power plants to protect against extreme cold weather. Glick said the report was put on the bookshelf, and nothing was done.

"How fast do we need to make investments in things like the power grid?" CBS News' Yuccas asked him.

"This is a real emergency," he said. "We can't afford to wait."