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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What to know about possible power shortages in Texas this winter

Ice covers plants and the sidewalk at the intersection of Lemmon Ave and McKinney Ave on Dec. 23, 2022, in Dallas. Severe winter weather would create elevated risk of blackouts this winter, according to ERCOT.  (Juan Figueroa/ Dallas Morning News)
By Philip Jankowski Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN, Texas – The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has projected Texas could see widespread power outages if the state experiences severe winter weather on par with a storm that plunged temperatures below freezing for multiple days last year.

ERCOT is raising alarms about the winter and tried to shore up power reserves by asking power plant operators to reactivate some shuttered natural gas and coal plants. ERCOT, however, received few offers in the program and canceled it.

Here are some things to know about the risk of blackouts this winter:

What are the chances of rolling blackouts?

When Texas’ power demand outstrips available supply, ERCOT is forced to shut off power to some customers to maintain the stability of the grid.

The last time that happened was in February 2021, when a major winter storm led to equipment failures at power plants of all types and paralyzed some fossil fuel infrastructure. As the grid neared collapse, ERCOT ordered controlled outages that left millions of people without electricity. More than 200 people died.

ERCOT has predicted a 14.4% chance it could order controlled outages – known as rolling blackouts – if Texas experiences a storm similar to a severe cold snap the state saw from Dec. 22 to Dec. 25 last year, according to a seasonal assessment. In January, the chances grow to about 16.8%, the grid operator predicted.

The relatively high chances for blackouts only occur in scenarios where ERCOT modeled for extreme winter storms. The actual chances of blackouts are much lower, according to ERCOT.

When is the time for greatest risk?

The hour of 8 a.m. is when ERCOT has predicted the greatest chance for blackouts.

The reason mornings are the most troublesome is because that is when people begin waking up and using more electricity. The temperatures remain near daily lows, so heaters are likely to be operating while people begin heating water and cooking meals.

Add to that a typically lackluster amount of renewable energy production during the winter, and it creates a morning spike in power demand that typically does not coincide with increases in energy production.

“The resource mix that’s changing on the grid isn’t really helping to pick up the growing peaks in the winter,” ERCOT CEO Pablo Vegas said . “That’s why there’s this growing risk profile that we need to deal with.”

What is creating risk?

More people and businesses are the main driver for energy shortages on the ERCOT grid.

Census estimates show Texas’ population topped 30 million in 2022. The state’s population has grown 20% since 2010.

That can be seen in energy usage. This summer, electricity demand broke all-time records 10 times. Monthly demand records also are being set routinely, according to data from ERCOT. While the amount of electricity being used continues to grow at rates that outpace population growth, the amount of new generation being added to the grid has kept pace mainly in renewable energy.

The state has seen gains in wind and solar energy, which can account for a majority of the power being generated on the grid at times. While the electricity they produce is cheap and clean, it is wholly dependent on weather.

The risk comes from a lack of new dispatchable power plants – facilities generally fueled by natural gas that can provide on-demand power generation. A large portion of Texas’ natural gas power plants are more than 30 years old, and few new plants are planned. If those older plants are unable to maintain operations, power reserves could reach critical levels.

What is being done?

Vegas said the power grid operator has seen widespread weatherization of facilities.

After the deadly February 2021 freeze, the Legislature put in place weatherization standards for power plants. ERCOT has conducted inspections of power plants to ensure those rules are being followed. The grid operator also created an incentive program that pays power plants for keeping a backup supply of fuel on site.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, has created weatherization standards for gas wells and pipelines. ERCOT and the Railroad Commission have created a map of critical infrastructure.

Agencies involved in emergency response to winter events say communications between organizations have improved since the creation of the Texas Energy Reliability Council.

Participants include energy companies, TxDOT, the Texas Department of Emergency Management, ERCOT, the Public Utility Commission and the Railroad Commission.

What about El Nino?

The National Weather Service has predicted a strong chance that El Nino will develop this winter.

The warmer than usual currents in the Pacific that trigger El Nino could reach “historic” levels, according to the weather service. For Texas and beyond, that generally means cooler temperatures and more precipitation.

It could mean that ERCOT is not the only power grid that could see energy shortages this winter.

A recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which regulates power grids in the U.S. and Canada, found elevated risks of energy shortages in Texas, the Midwest, parts of New England and Quebec.