Texas power grid expected to withstand extreme cold this week

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas expects sufficient electricity generation as much of the state will plunge into frigid temperatures.

click to enlarge Millions of Texans went without power in February 2021 as the state's electrical grid buckled under the strain from the prolonged cold front. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Millions of Texans went without power in February 2021 as the state's electrical grid buckled under the strain from the prolonged cold front.
Texas’ main power grid should have enough electricity later this week to keep customers warm amid bitter cold weather expected across large portions of the state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages power for most of the state, said electricity supply should keep up with an expected surge in demand.

Texans should prepare to endure frigid temperatures beginning Thursday night and lasting at least until Saturday, the National Weather Service warned.

An “aggressive” cold front is expected to dive south into Texas, plunging temperatures into the single digits across most regions of the state. Forecasters expect “dangerous” wind chills below 0, bitterly cold air and hard freezes.

“Bundle up folks,” a forecast report from the National Weather Service in El Paso warned.

Texans endured a catastrophic power blackout during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, which left millions of people in the dark for days and caused hundreds of deaths across the state. Many died from carbon monoxide poisoningafter attempting to heat their homes by bringing grills inside or running their vehicles in the garage.

ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission have made several changes to the power grid to improve its performance during cold weather since the crisis, many of them a result of legislation passed in 2021. Improvements include better power plant preparation, ensuring natural gas-fired plants have additional sources of fuel on site in case of emergency, and improving communications between electricity regulators, oil and gas regulators, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

“As we monitor weather conditions, we want to assure Texans that the grid is resilient and reliable,” ERCOT President and CEO Pablo Vegas said in a statement. “We will keep the public informed as weather conditions change.”

ERCOT has also implemented inspections of power plants to ensure they comply with the new requirements to better withstand extreme weather.

During an ERCOT committee meeting Monday, Woody Rickerson, ERCOT vice president of system planning and weatherization, said that 95% of facilities required to weatherize have sent the grid operator declarations of winter readiness. ERCOT inspects facilities for compliance; he expects about half of the more than 500 inspections to be complete by February.

“Crews are out there right now inspecting plants,” Rickerson said.

Andrew Keese, spokesperson for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, said in a statement Monday that regulators are “actively inspecting” the weather preparedness of critical gas infrastructure on the electricity supply chain.

“We’ve met with large operators, [local distribution companies], and pipeline companies, and they’ve confirmed they are prepared,” Keese said. “The RRC will continue to monitor the weather and work with other agencies to protect residents.”

Energy regulators have sought to assure the public that another blackout crisis is a remote possibility. Peter Lake, the chair of the PUC, said during a November press conference that the grid is “better prepared than ever.”

“We’ve kept the lights on following Uri and last winter, and in the face of several winter blasts,” Lake said during the late November press conference. “We know the reforms are working, and we know that these changes have had an impact.”

The PUC is still working to redesign Texas’ power market to implement a “reliability standard” and is expected to vote on the proposal early next year. But some lawmakers have opposed the PUC’s favored proposal and pressured the agency to delay implementation.

Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC who works as an energy consultant, expects most power plants in Texas are prepared to operate during the extreme cold.

“Everybody who runs a power plant or a transmission line in Texas knows that their reputation and their individual careers are on the line if they screw up right now,” Silverstein said. “Almost everybody should be very well weatherized in terms of power plant capability.”

However, Silverstein said, ERCOT has not been very accurate in its predictions for power demand during cold weather. Many Texas homes are poorly insulated and rely on centralized, forced-air electric furnaces. That means in very cold conditions, many Texans must increase electricity demand between two and four times higher than normal to keep the house warm, she said.

“The commission has done zero to improve energy efficiency and the terrible risk to consumers’ homes,” Silverstein said.

To prepare for the weather, Texans should have a winter kit on hand that includes a one- to two-week supply of nonperishable food and water, blankets, extra warm clothes, a first-aid kit, portable lights and batteries, according to National Weather Service and emergency response experts.

Pipes can be better protected by covering outdoor water hoses and draining outside faucets before temperatures drop. Experts emphasized that cars and gas generators should not be left running in closed areas, and gas and charcoal grills should not be used inside the home.

Without adequate preparations to insulate pipes, they may freeze and burst, experts warned. During the 2021 blackouts, the loss of pressure in water systems from so many dripping faucets forced some areas to issue boil-water notices. Silverstein recommended that Texans stock up on water ahead of the cold weather.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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