(CNN) A winter storm and lengthy cold snap have crippled power facilities in Texas and caused about 2.3 million outages as of Wednesday evening, leaving residents in the cold and dark for several days.
The lack of power to about a quarter of the state has created a widespread emergency, with families huddling in homes or cars without heat, burst water pipes, failing water systems and gasoline shortages.
Barbara Martinez said she had been burning firewood to try to heat her suburban Houston home, which had been without power from early Sunday until Tuesday.
“We got power for four hours and then it went off again and it stayed off for a few hours, came back for like two hours then went away,” she said Wednesday morning. “It’s currently off.”
The outages cover the areas served by Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, from the counties bordering Mexico up to those touching Oklahoma, and from Houston in the east to rural Big Bend in the west. Yet areas outside of ERCOT’s coverage zone, including the eastern border with Louisiana, the northwest panhandle and El Paso in the west, are basically unaffected.
Texas officials pointed the blame at the power company and called for investigations. US Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat who represents parts of Fort Worth and Dallas, said he’s learned from an industry executive that the power grid was just minutes from failing on Monday before state agency officials initiated emergency rolling outages.
“I want people to know that we were minutes away from the entire grid crashing,” he told CNN’s Ed Lavandera, criticizing ERCOT and Republican leaders for not better preparing for the freeze.
“They certainly could have taken some precautions that would have prevented what we’re having to deal with now,” Veasey said.
An ERCOT spokesperson did not immediately return a CNN request for comment. But earlier Wednesday, CEO Bill Magness said the issue largely was a lack of energy supply as the cold weather shuttered power facilities. ERCOT’s controlled power outages, he said, had in fact averted the system’s collapse.
“If we had waited, and not done outages, not reduced demand to reflect what was going on, on the overall system, we could have drifted towards a blackout,” he said. “People feel like what we’re seeing feels like a blackout, but the blackout that can occur if you don’t keep the supply and demand in balance could last months.”
The power issues are likely to continue, especially given that the cold temperatures will last for another day or two. Over 21 million people, or nearly 70% of Texas’s population, are currently under some sort of winter weather alert.
The controlled outages have created rotating power issues as ERCOT has tried to spread around the pain, pushing people to rely on warming centers or the kindness of neighbors.
“We have power for about 30 or 15 minutes and then we get a blackout for about five to six hours,” said Eder Lemus of San Antonio.
The pipes in his house froze, so he, his wife and three children are relying on others for water.
“As of now, we are using a neighbor’s faucet to refill a bucket of water to drain our toilets,” he told said. “When and if the lights come back on, we try to take showers and refill our drinking water gallons so that we can stay hydrated.”
Gov. Greg Abbott said that he has spoken with both the lieutenant governor and the state House speaker, and that an investigation of ERCOT is slated to begin next week.
“ERCOT is an independent private entity that, candidly, I have both investigated and prosecuted before when I was attorney general of Texas, and we’re now investigating again,” Abbott said. “I’m not suggesting any way that there’s been any criminal activity or anything like that, but it is something that needs to be looked at.”
Abbott said a news conference Wednesday that 6,000 megawatts have been added to the state’s grid — enough power for about 1.2 million households.
There will be additional onboarding coming from the South Texas Nuclear Project and additional operations will increase from coal-produced power, Abbott said.
These sources will add more than 2,000 megawatts to the grid and provide additional power for about 400,000 homes, according to Abbott. About 17,200 megawatts of renewable generated power remain out on Wednesday afternoon, due to “freezing of the wind, or because of lack of sun for the solar,” Abbott said.
The widespread outages stem from a weather disaster coupled with an unprepared infrastructure.
A winter weather system brought unusually frigid temperatures to much of the central US over the past few days, including in Texas, the country’s energy leader. The deep freeze caused demand for power and heating to skyrocket even as it knocked out the state’s natural gas, coal, wind and nuclear facilities, which were not ready to function in such cold weather.