Another Arctic freeze is headed for Texas. Is its electrical grid ready?

Last year's "repairs" will be put to the test.
Grant Currin
Icicles hang from frozen power lines. South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff

Here we go again, Texas.

With temperatures dropping in the Lonestar state, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: will the power stay on?

Yes, there's another major cold front sweeping across Texas, and it'll mark the first test of the state’s power grid since a series of severe winter storms caused catastrophic power outages last February.

The failure led to nearly 250 deaths and more than $200 billion in economic damage. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the agency responsible for coordinating the generation and consumption of electricity on the grid, said last month that nearly every single power generating facility in the state is in compliance with new winterization regulations, which require upgrades like insulating pipes and constructing windbreaks around delicate equipment. But some experts aren’t so sure the preparations are enough.

As to who's right, only the imminent deepfreeze can settle the dispute.

Texas' 2021 deepfreeze was a disaster. And a warning

A series of three storms last February caused millions of people to lose power and sent the grid to uncharted levels of chaotic disruptions. The first storm took roughly 25% of the power generation offline. Half of that was wind energy and the other half was natural gas. A viral image of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine caused many to believe that the storm had proven renewable energy was unreliable. Roughly half of the state’s wind turbines, which were not designed to operate in very cold conditions, did go offline. However, it was the failure of natural gas, which accounts for roughly half of the state’s electricity generation, that caused most of the problems. 

But then it got worse. When the second storm, dubbed Uri, battered the state, temperatures plunged to new record lows, bringing Texas to its highest-ever demand for electricity. By early morning on February 15, roughly half the state’s generators had gone offline, largely because natural gas infrastructure across the state had frozen. The rapid loss of electricity flowing into the system combined with the high demand briefly caused the grid’s electrical frequency to fall below a critical threshold. If utilities hadn’t acted quickly to turn even more customers’ power off, automatic shut-offs would have caused a total blackout and left most in the state without power for weeks, or even months.

And that would have been truly catastrophic.

It's unclear what the future holds

Eleven million Texans lost power at some point during the storms, prompting outrage among officials and promises that things would be changed. The state quickly passed a law requiring the state’s Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, to make sure power plants had sufficient plans for weatherization. However, the commission’s chairperson told lawmakers that her agency didn’t have the authority to do more than simply collect the winterization plans, which left it unclear who would enforce them. While it’s unclear exactly what has changed, ERCOT says the state’s electrical grid “is more prepared for winter operations than ever before."

Governor Greg Abbott had expressed faith in the power grid, but he walked back those comments on Tuesday, saying "no one can guarantee" that there won't be local outages. Energy consultant and power grid expert Alison Silverstein said the coming days won't truly test the grid because the system "is so much milder compared to last year." That might not hold for the natural gas, she added, saying there's "little proof" the system was winterized. "If there is a vulnerability to Texas power plants and ERCOT operations it’s going to be because the gas system let us down," she said in an NBC 5 report. Bizarrely, Senator Ted Cruz found humor in this deepfreeze scenario. In what appears to be a reference to suspicions that he might repeat his widely-scandalized family trip to Mexico during the outages last year, he tweeted, perhaps tongue-in-cheek: "tickets to Cancun are up 32%!"

The question remains: will the power stay on? We'll have an answer, but not until the weekend. 

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board