It’s February in Texas and an Arctic cold front is barreling toward North Texas and threatens to reach farther south. Last year, those conditions—combined with the Legislature’s failure to adopt protective regulations common in other states—meant the failure of the electric grid, widespread blackouts, and as many as seven hundred deaths. This year? Probably not nearly as bad, but there are reasons for concern.
For a large blackout in Texas, there needs to be very high demand for electricity occurring at the same time power plants trip off-line, either because they’re not prepared for cold, icy weather, or because they can’t get enough fuel because their gas suppliers aren’t prepared.
First, the bad news: the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is currently projecting record-setting demand. The numbers change hourly, but ERCOT’s most recent forecast, based on current weather predictions and expectations of the resultant rising power usage, is for demand to exceed 71.2 gigawatts on Friday morning at 8 a.m. Last year, demand set a wintertime peak of 69.2 gigawatts on Sunday evening, February 14—about six hours before the blackouts.
Now the good news: there will probably be enough power generation to get us through this patch of winter. “We have been working for the last year to make sure that this grid is more reliable than it ever has been, and it is,” ERCOT chief Brad Jones said on Tuesday morning. “We are ready for this storm.” ERCOT’s data shows that if it pulls out all the stops and uses every power generator, it should have 81.1 gigawatts, enough to weather the storm. It can also pay a few industrial users to shut off, as needed, and has considerable gas in storage, according to Texas railroad commissioner Jim Wright.
But what happens if power plants go off-line because of frozen wind turbine blades that aren’t equipped with warming coils; frozen piles of coal; iced-over air ducts; or a dearth of gas because of pipeline systems that haven’t been winterized? The grid could eat through its reserve quickly and force ERCOT to institute blackouts again. We’re still counting on natural gas—which is relied upon for 45.5 percent of the state’s electricity generation—to keep flowing, and that might not be the best bet. A month ago, on January 2, a relatively mild cold snap in West Texas caused problems with gas infrastructure in the Permian Basin. Gas production fell by 25 percent, according to market intelligence firm S&P Global.
After being warned repeatedly that Texas’s grid was uniquely vulnerable to cold weather—including during rolling blackouts in a 2011 cold front that should have been a Klaxon horn warning—lawmakers finally responded last year with a series of bills to address the state’s energy supply. As I wrote in a cover story this month, they changed rules for electric companies and energy producers, and funded inspections of power plants and natural gas facilities, to ensure they were more prepared for cold weather. There was pushback, especially from gas companies and their regulators, and some deadlines to implement changes, and to weatherize, were delayed until next winter. While many electricity providers have prepared for cold weather since last year’s freeze, natural gas producers have been slower to act.
If Texas skates by this time without blackouts, it will have less to do with those bills passed in the Legislature than the fact that this Arctic weather event won’t be as cold or as widespread as last year. Mother Nature, in other words, will have provided some tender mercy. That’s the conclusion of Daniel Cohan, an engineering professor at Rice University. “Uri was a wintertime equivalent of a Cat 3 hurricane. This week will be more like a tropical storm or Cat 1—the first test of our newly but insufficiently fortified defenses,” he tweeted.
Nonetheless, one unfortunate pattern is already repeating from last year: confusing messaging. At a press conference on Tuesday in Austin, Governor Greg Abbott was asked if the lights would stay on. “No one can guarantee that there won’t be a ‘load shed’ event,” he said. (A “load shed,” in grid-speak, is when ERCOT blacks out certain areas to balance demand with available electrical supply.) It was a marked contradiction of promises he had made in late November. Speaking then to Austin’s Fox affiliate KTBC-TV, he had said, “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.”