A February cold snap in the central U.S. has created record power demand, resulting in outages from Texas to North Dakota and contractors bracing for delays and damage from weather impacts.
Texas electric grid operator Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) declared a statewide power generation shortfall on Feb. 15, leading utilities to institute rolling blackouts for many in the state—although some residents report sustained outages lasting 30 hours or more.
Texas-based utility CenterPoint Energy said there were 1.28 million customers without power, many in the Houston area, which had dropped to 47,000 by early Feb. 18, according to its update.
The Southwest Power Pool, the independent system operator that operates the grid in a 14-state area from Texas to North Dakota, implemented rolling blackouts on Feb. 15. It reached a record winter peak load that day of 43,661 MW. alternating the rolling blackouts that day and on Feb. 16.
Even late in the afternoon of Feb. 16, the Texas Dept. of Transportation was urging drivers to stay off the roads because of patches of ice.
In Central Texas, contractors have temporarily halted work and are monitoring the weather day by day, says Phil Thoden, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors Austin Chapter. “It looks like we may be out for a week. That is quite a big delay. We’ll just have to find ways to work around these things.”
That includes construction at the AGC chapter’s own office in downtown Austin, where crews have halted work since Feb. 11 on a sewer replacement project at the building. “It started to sleet, and the weather was getting bad really fast,” Thoden says. “They left on Thursday and have not returned. We don’t know when they’ll able to come back.”
In New Orleans and southeast Louisiana, where Mardi Gras was being celebrated, albeit quietly, work was on hold at Gallo Mechanical’s jobsites, including the Four Seasons Hotel & Residences in New Orleans and several large health care projects across the region.
“With offices throughout that geography, we have had a number of impacts over the last few days,” says JP Hymel, president of Gallo Mechanical.
The New Orleans-based contractor serves clients across south Louisiana, the Gulf Coast and the Carolinas, and its offices and jobsites in Baton Rouge and Lafayette have been closed since Monday morning.
Gallo Mechanical has been fielding calls from New Orleans to Dallas with reports of issues such as broken pipes, low water flow and extreme cold temperatures caused by equipment failures. “Wet, icy conditions are top of mind for our service managers, and we are determining when we can get back on the road to serve our clients," Hymel says.
Weather days are usually built into the contract of any commercial project, Thoden says. Although this week’s freeze poses a different set of weather challenges than contractors may be used to in Texas, where rain and wind are usually the top concerns.
Thoden had not received damage reports from his chapter’s contractors as of Feb. 16, morning, but said widespread outages and icy conditions would make it difficult and dangerous for contractors to get around.
“There will be ripple effects that will impact construction, just in terms of the ongoing delays due to weather,” Thoden says.
For the supply chain, that could mean a slowdown from delayed deliveries and shipments coming in to the port, for example. “You’ll have a problem if you’re having mechanical equipment installed and delivered, and the drywall people were going to come in next week, but now they can’t. Those things are going to happen,” he says.
Mike O’Deay, vice president of Baton Rouge maintenance firm ACI Facility Support, says most of the emergency calls his firm fielded have come from the areas between Lafayette and New Orleans, where ice and freezing rain seemed to cause the most damage. The early calls were largely relating to fallen trees and limbs that caused building and fencing damage, as well as frozen water lines and backflow preventers.
“It’s still too early to fully assess the damage since most properties have not opened, and temperatures are still below freezing. Once temperatures are above freezing, we expect to see a rise in plumbing calls,” says O’Deay, whose firm provides commercial facility disaster preparedness and recovery.
In advance of the storm, his workers insulated water lines, and the company held advance meetings with plumbing subcontractors to make sure they cleared their schedules for the remainder of this week. “We expect a great number of ruptured water lines once the temperatures rise above freezing on Wednesday,” O’Deay says.
According to ERCOT, electricity generation in Texas has been shut down because of frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and nuclear plants, limited supplies of natural gas, and some frozen wind turbines.