Can Texas' power grid handle this week's arctic blast? Energy experts weigh in

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, December 20, 2022
Can ERCOT handle this week's arctic blast? Energy experts weigh in
Many Houstonians are traumatized from Texas' 2021 freeze and question the state's ability to supply enough energy ahead of this weekend, even though ERCOT insists they're prepared.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With an arctic blast forecasted for the Greater Houston area on Thursday and Friday, some people living in the area are concerned about whether our state's power grid will be able to handle the energy demand. ERCOT has insisted that it can, but the devastating impact from the February 2021 winter freeze still leaves some people traumatized.

"We lived through the biggest set of blackouts in terms of disaster, in terms of just about anywhere in the country for decades. I mean, over 200 people died. We have over 30% shortfalls of power. It's going to take a while to build back trust," Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, said.

ERCOT declined an interview request with ABC13 on Monday, but referred us back to a statement released Friday, which stated in part:

"As a series of cold fronts approach Texas, ERCOT continues to closely monitor weather forecasts and models. ERCOT expects sufficient generation to meet forecasted demand and will continue to provide updates. Over the past 18 months, ERCOT has worked closely with the Public Utility Commission and elected officials to implement reforms and increase grid reliability, including weatherization, bringing more generation online sooner if needed, and purchasing more reserve power. As a result, the reliability and resiliency of the grid has been strengthened significantly."

RELATED STORY: Concerns raised over Public Utility Commission's grid fix plan following 2021 deadly winter freeze

Charles McConnell, who is the director of the Center for Carbon Management and Energy at the University of Houston, believes we're in much better shape than we were during the February 2021 storm.

"It (last year's storm) put the issue front and center for not only politicians, but also ERCOT and the industry. I believe the lessons learned from that should give us all strong confidence that dispatchable energy being made available on a 24/7 basis is the key to this. I think that sense of awareness is now firmly in front of everyone and we're taking measures," McConnell said.

ABC13's chief forecaster David Tillman said the other part that may help alleviate concerns is that this week's upcoming freeze won't be as cold and won't last as long as nearly two years ago.

"We're going to have some really strong winds with this system. So wind chill-wise, it'll be about the same. But if you recall from Feb. 2021, the entire state of Texas was under a winter storm warning. This time around, we will not have to deal with any ice on the ground or snow, for that matter. The other difference is, temperatures will be about four to five degrees warmer than what they were in February 2021," Tillman said.

RELATED STORY: Energy officials say Texas' power grid will withstand increased demand this winter

Cohan explained some of the solutions ERCOT has implemented to improve our state's grid system.

"They've gone through and made sure that every power plant in the state has made a better plan, has ensured that its equipment is less susceptible to freeze, and that it has backup fuel. So we know that those improvements have been made," he said.

Now, whether energy experts believe our state's power grid will be able to handle another storm like the Feb. 2021 freeze, Cohan said he's concerned that it can't. He said there has not been enough repairs to the natural gas supply systems and there are still shortages in terms of how much dispatchable power we have.

"We haven't done anything really to connect our grid to the rest of the country or to make the improvements in efficiency that we need. When you run your grid as an island, anything that goes wrong within Texas is going to mean the risk of blackouts," said Cohen. "What hasn't happened is we haven't had hardly any new power plants come online. We still have a natural gas supply system that is vulnerable to freezes. Many parts of the natural gas supply chain are not winterized for cold weather."

RELATED STORY: ERCOT acknowledges possibility of rolling blackouts this winter in 'extreme risk scenarios'

He noted that these solutions will take more time to implement and believes that ERCOT has done what it can in a year's time in terms of inspecting power plants and performing quick fixes.

"The real improvements are measures that will probably take three to five years, as far as building more transmission connections to neighboring grids, winterizing the natural gas supply, and looking at building out more dispatchable resources," Cohen said.

Now this answer ranges from person to person. McConnell says he is more confident this time around that our grid could stand up to a storm of the same magnitude as February 2021's. Either way, experts emphasize that now is a good time to winterize your home and make sure your family is prepared with supplies in case of a prolonged power outage.

For some tips on how to prepare your home for winter temperatures, visit the ABC13 website.

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