Extremely cold weather in Texas will test the state’s power grid
Millions of Texans are waking up to cold air Tuesday and hoping the state’s power grid, which failed spectacularly during 2021’s deep freeze, will hold up this time.
The early hours of the day will be a crucial test for energy supplies as wind chills drop below zero in cities like Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, and as many offices reopen after the long weekend for Martin Luther King’s birthday.
The state grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, asked Texans to limit power use between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The board said the order “does not indicate that ERCOT is facing emergency conditions at this time,” adding that the order was “a widely used industry tool that can help reduce demand for a specified period of peak demand time.”
Extreme winter weather in February 2021 caused Texas’ power grid to crash, leaving millions without power for days and contributing to the deaths of more than 240 people.
Officials in Texas have taken steps to prevent such critical infrastructure from failing again when demand increases during the cold. Since 2021, the country has expanded the amount of solar power on the grid, in addition to large amounts of wind power.
Even as officials show confidence in the strengthened electrical grid, ERCOT is not ruling out the possibility of recurring power outages, in which power is cut off to certain areas at a time and then restored. This emergency measure aims to avoid overwhelming demand on the grid and causing widespread and long-term power outages.
Winter mornings are especially taxing on the network. Temperatures are approaching their lowest levels. The winds that drive electric turbines are often calm; The sun, which powers the solar panels, is not strong enough.
Many Texas mayors appealed to residents to take necessary precautions in the extreme cold. In Austin, warming shelters were scheduled to remain in operation through Tuesday morning after sheltering 400 people overnight, many of them vulnerable homeless people at risk of hypothermia.
“It’s very, very cold,” Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said Monday.
Classes were canceled Tuesday in some densely populated school districts, including Dallas, and at some major universities, such as Texas A&M, and this may reduce expected electricity demand.
So far, the system has withstood the recent deep freeze. ERCOT said there were no power outages Monday morning when electricity use surpassed the previous record of peak winter demand during the December 2022 cold snap. But the pressure on Tuesday could be greater.
ERCOT forecasts estimated that if temperatures in January dropped as low as they did in December 2022, there would be a one in six chance of a power outage during the morning around 8 a.m.
While much of the attention is focused on Texas, it’s not the only place hoping critical infrastructure doesn’t collapse under the weight of the cold weather.
In 2021, while millions of Texans found themselves without power, many people in Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson remained without water for weeks. On Christmas 2022, tens of thousands of people in Jackson did not have running water because the system’s pipes were unable to withstand low temperatures.
One of Jackson’s waterworks was built in 1914 and some of the city’s water problems stem from the age of the city’s infrastructure. As freezing temperatures increase in the South, infrastructure that was not built for such cold is at risk.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements to facilities that were never built for cold weather,” said Ted Hennevin, interim director of the city’s drinking water system. “We feel good about where we are.”
David Montgomery Contributing reporting from Austin, Texas.