Xcel Energy Water Power Park in Minneapolis, MN on Feb 18th, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The massive power outages in Texas from extreme cold are unlikely to occur in Minnesota, but parts of the state have been hit by rolling blackouts due to high demand on energy grids. 

Controlled blackouts hit Moorhead this week, leaving residents without power for bouts lasting about 30 minutes, while temperatures hovered around zero degrees, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reported. 

Energy grid regulators implemented those rationing outages to avoid massive blackouts like the ones seen in Texas this week, where millions have lost power and face dangerous situations without heat and with limited water. At least 12 people in Texas have died due to the cold and related issues like carbon monoxide poisoning, as people attempt to heat their homes with fires and outdoor propane heaters. 

Historically marginalized communities across the United States have been disproportionately impacted by extreme weather events, according to a 2019 study from the journal Frontiers in Public Health. In Texas, minority neighborhoods have been especially stricken by recent blackouts, The New York Times reported. Older and sicker people are particularly vulnerable to power outages.

“When the power goes out the folks that get hit the hardest are often elderly, or people with health problems that need consistent temperatures,” Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, told Sahan Journal.

The scenes in Texas may induce fears of what a power and planning failure could mean in Minnesota, where temperatures have hovered around zero degrees for over a week. Experts say superior infrastructure and connection to a larger energy grid will help the state manage increased demand due to cold. But deep freezes have strained the state’s energy system before. During a similar polar vortex blast in 2019, Xcel Energy asked its customers statewide to turn thermostats down to 63 degrees to prevent outages.

Heatwaves in recent summers have also challenged energy grids across the country

Power outages from extreme weather often disproportionately harm people of color. When a massive heat wave hit Chicago in July 1995 and killed 739 people, 75 percent of the victims were Black or Latino

Underinvestment and isolation

Intense cold and snow is putting a strain on energy grids across the country—including areas that typically experience milder winters. But Texas was particularly vulnerable to the storms because of underinvestment and isolation, according to Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner Joseph Sullivan. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is a governor-appointed board that regulates the state’s electricity, natural gas, and telephone industries. 

“It’s not that there’s actually a lack of supply, it’s that they’ve underinvested,” Sullivan told Sahan Journal. “We have not done that in Minnesota.”

Minnesota, predictably, has invested much more in winterizing its energy system than Texas. Plants producing energy are better insulated, as are the pipes that transport natural gas. In Texas, natural gas plants are typically exposed to the elements, which has caused wells to freeze. 

Similarly, wind turbines in Minnesota and the upper Midwest are equipped with cold packs and can function at temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. In Texas, turbines have frozen.

Despite claims of some conservative politicians and media pundits, frozen turbines in Texas are not the primary cause of issues in the Lone Star State. Natural gas failures were the main culprit, according to reporting in the Texas Tribune

Texas and other southern states will likely need to invest more in winterizing their power plants and transmission lines. Climate scientists believe warm air in the Arctic is weakening the polar jet stream, a narrow band of strong winds that typically hovers above the Arctic circle. That makes it more likely for the stream of frigid air to push south into the United States, which can cause extreme cold spells.

The situation in Texas has been further exacerbated by the state’s isolated energy grid: This is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERGOT), which provides power to most of the state. The grid functions separately from other major North American power networks and can’t draw on neighboring states for energy when its plants suffer disruptions. 

“When our resources are low in Minnesota, we can draw from the larger grid,” Sullivan said.  

Most of Minnesota is part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which stretches from Manitoba, Canada, down to New Orleans. 

A small sliver of western Minnesota, including Moorhead, is part of the Southwest Power Pool grid, which covers many central states. Shortages in the area due to limited natural gas supplies and excess demand led the provider to issue rolling blackouts as a triage maneuver. 

“This is an extreme weather event, so it’s going to impact everybody,” Sullivan said. 

One takeaway from this week’s natural disaster: Even grids with better infrastructure are strained by the demands caused by events like the recent cold spell. And with the increase in such events due to climate change, planning and resilience are critical. By the time an underprepared grid is exposed, the lights are already out.

Andrew Hazzard

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...