In February 2021, Jordan Cooper was living at her dad’s loft in the Cedars, an area south of downtown Dallas, when Winter Storm Uri wiped out power for them and millions more across the state. Her dad’s neighborhood was without heat or electricity for a day and then had several subsequent days of intermittent power—about an hour on for every eight hours off, Cooper recalled. They made do by keeping their perishables outside in the snow. In those dark hours, they managed to warm their food using tea lights.
Meanwhile in Austin, Stu Taylor’s wife, Megan Mead, was nine months pregnant when they lost power and were told their water was unsafe to drink, so they camped out for five days at their friend’s upstairs loft near McKinney Falls State Park, sleeping on air mattresses. Mead went into labor the last morning of the freeze. They made it to St. David’s Medical Center, where they were told that, owing to a lack of running water the night before, patients had to use plastic bags in lieu of a functioning bathroom.
Over the past few days, Texas has faced some of its colder weather since Uri. Demand for electricity spiked, as did many Texans’ anxiety, especially those like Mead and Cooper who vividly remember the deadly 2021 freeze. The big question was whether the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which independently operates Texas’s electrical grid, would be able to keep the lights on.
“I was pretty encouraged by how the grid ran,” said Judd Messer, the vice president of Advanced Power Alliance, an industry trade association that promotes renewable energy. He attributed this, in part, to the state’s recent efforts to require power-generation companies to prepare their facilities to withstand extreme weather. “These first two phases of weatherization that ERCOT has taken seem to have really paid off.”
Texas governor Greg Abbott was markedly more celebratory, extolling ERCOT’s success—unsurprising since the fallout from Uri incited much criticism toward the governor, and pressure to sign off on a number of bills in the 2021 legislative session that would require modifications of facilities to better handle extreme weather events. “Texas set 3 all-time records for power demand & supply this winter storm,” Abbott wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “The ERCOT power grid performed flawlessly, never failing.”
But experts say the lack of blackouts this time around was not entirely due to the grid’s resilience—there were a number of factors that led to its improved performance, including the weather itself. For one thing, the conditions were less extreme: “This storm wasn’t as cold, as widespread, as long, or as wet as Winter Storm Uri,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist for the University of Texas at Austin. “The grid wasn’t under the same level of stress.”
Demand may have technically reached record highs this week, peaking at 78,138 megawatts on January 16, but Rhodes argued that demand during Uri would likely have been much greater if not for the widespread power outages. “It’s hard to make that comparison because we don’t know because the lights were out,” Rhodes said.
Another factor to the system’s success was its renewables fleet, which has expanded dramatically within the past three years. Back in 2021, Texas’s solar fleet generated a record 7,240 megawatts of electricity; this year, Texas set a new record on January 16, the day of highest electrical demand, by producing 14,835 megawatts of solar electricity, more than double the output of three years earlier. “Solar is having a moment right now,” Messer said, even in spite of Texas conservatives’ hostility toward renewable energy.
Nevertheless, the renewables naysayers were in full force during the freeze. Among the far right, a snapshot of ERCOT’s energy output at 6 a.m. on January 15 made the rounds on X, showing solar energy output at 0 percent (eliding the obvious: solar energy does not run when the sun hasn’t risen yet).
But the sun’s predictability is actually a boon for grid operators, said Messer. “They pretty much know what they’re going to get from solar.” Of course, some days are cloudier than others. “But because weather forecasting is getting so much better,” Messer added, “solar is a great resource because it’s so predictable.” And while peak demand in the winter has shifted to mornings, during our increasingly hot summers, the apex is happening throughout the day—“when solar is just chugging along,” Messer said.
Rhodes added that renewables tend to complement each other well. Conveniently, wind, particularly in West Texas, tends to pick up in the nighttime hours, just as solar lags, and then dies down as the sun starts to rise again. “There’s good synergy there,” he said.
The addition of batteries played another pivotal role in the grid’s success this week. During Uri, big batteries were a “rounding error,” said Garrett Golding, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. This time around, batteries contributed 1,000 megawatts (about half the amount of one of Texas’s nukes) during critical junctures when the grid needed a boost.
Nevertheless, the system was not without its issues. On Monday morning, some power was stranded in South Texas because there wasn’t enough capacity on the grid’s large transmission lines, prompting ERCOT to call on Texans to voluntarily conserve energy. Cooper, who was staying with her mom in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood in southern Dallas, at the time, received the messages. They didn’t take showers or run the dishwasher, and kept their thermostat at a sustainable 62 degrees. But after they’d been burned by the freeze of 2021, they were also more prepared: “This time around, both of my parents had battery-operated lights and they got a bunch of candles and they stored canned foods,” she said.
While the grid’s performance was encouraging, Rhodes wasn’t quite as certain of its reliability. “As an engineer, I try to stay away from absolutes like ‘flawlessly’ because there’s always something that can break,” said Rhodes. “February is usually our coldest month. There may be another test of the system to come.”
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