ERCOT, officials say Texas power grid can handle major winter weather

Georgina Rodriguez, 13, runs through the snow late Sunday night, Feb. 14, 2021, in San Antonio.
Georgina Rodriguez, 13, runs through the snow late Sunday night, Feb. 14, 2021, in San Antonio.Lisa Krantz/Staff photographer

There’s no doubt it’s about to get cold. Much of Texas is slated to see sustained freezes – cities up north and in the Texas Panhandle are expected to see sub-zero wind chills, the Texas Hill Country is slated to narrowly miss single-digit temps, and the greater San Antonio-Austin area is on track to see 20-degree days – but how does this compare to previous severe winter weather, and is the Texas power grid equipped to handle it?

How many people died in the Texas freeze?

It’s no wonder people are quick to panic when word of sustained freezes hit the headlines as the Great Texas Freeze in February of 2021 claimed the lives of 246 people, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, 16 of which died in Bexar County. Then, just a year later, the state saw another major freeze event which brought much of South Central Texas near single digit temps and left hundreds without power for prolonged periods.

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So, what has changed since 2021 to ensure Texans aren’t left freezing in their homes for hours amid frigid weather and potential icing over? Well, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas – the agency tasked with ensuring the continued operation of the Texas power grid often criticized for the outcomes of winter storms over the past few years – says it’s beefed up its inspection protocol since the deadly winter storm of 2021, ensuring reliable power supply to Texas homes.

“Since December 2021, ERCOT has conducted 1,774 weatherization inspections with 1,264 for generation resources and 510 for Transmission Service Providers (TSP) facilities,” an ERCOT spokesperson told MySA. “The Weatherization and Inspection Program is on track to complete 450 generation resource and transmission facility inspections this winter and to exceed the minimum numbers of inspections required by the rule prior to the end of the third year of the program.”

An ERCOT spokesperson assured that weatherization and inspection teams continue to inspect power plants and transmission facilities to ensure adherence to PUC requirements, ensuring a reliable power grid come severe winter weather. The spokesperson says there have been increased rule requirements for generation and transmission facilities in recent winter seasons since the devastating impacts of a failing power grid in winters of yesteryear.

“The two largest impacts to the preparedness of the grid for the winter are the winterization of current assets, including the inspections by ERCOT to ensure this has been accomplished. The other major impact is the addition of generation assets on the Grid,” Payless Power CEO Brandon Young told MySA. “For Winter 2021, ERCOT’s SARA report showed total Resources of 84,861 MWs for the ERCOT grid. For Winter 2024, ERCOT shows 95,470 MWs during the morning hours (peak load time for winter). Currently, ERCOT is predicting a peak load of around 80,000 MWs for this coming cold spell.”

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So, it seems that enhanced rules and increased winterization and inspection of the transmissions and generators that fuel the Texas power grid should leave the state in a better spot to prevent rolling outages and dwindling power supplies.

What is the coldest temperature in Texas history?

While it is about to get super cold in Texas, it’ll be nowhere near the coldest temperature recorded in Texas history, although some windchills up north may rival the record temperature. According to the National Weather Service, the coldest temperature on record in Texas was recorded in February 1933 in Tulia where temperatures dipped down 23 degrees below 0. For San Antonio, the coldest temperature on record was 0 degrees in 1949, according to the National Weather Service – a temperature that’s been rivaled in recent winter weather events.

Temperatures across Texas are set to plummet from single digits to low 20s across Texas as an arctic blast makes its way across the United States, but it’s unlikely to bring record colds to much of the state. However, severe winter weather isn’t unheard of during El Nino weather patterns, which experts say tend to bring wetter winter weather to South Central Texas.

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“Currently, we are experiencing an El Nino event. This can bring volatility to the weather patterns,” Young said. “The previous event occurred in 2018-2019. This event essentially meant a warmer December, followed by a colder January and February. This upcoming cold spell is coming from heavy ridging from Alaska pushing arctic air south into Texas, as well as into the Midwest and the Eastern parts of the country. The latest forecast shows this as a few-day event with temperatures returning to normal around the 22nd of January.”

How do you prepare for freezing weather in Texas?

As is the case with any extreme weather – be it cold or hot – weather-proofing your home is key in downsizing the impact on your electric or gas bill come the end of the month. Young told MySA Texans should keep their thermostats at 70 degrees or lower during extreme cold to reduce individual strain not only on the power grid but also on your wallet should scarcity pricing skyrocket the cost of electricity during peak usage.

Further, Young said some longer-range planning could also help reduce the financial burden on electric and gas users trying to heat their homes during bouts of extreme cold, including increasing the insulation in your attic and installing new windows which tend to be far more effective at insulating. If you find yourself in a sudden bout of cold and didn’t have time to make weather-proofing upgrades to your home, he says taping a sheet of plastic over windows is an effective way to reduce heat loss in extreme cold.

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“Summer in Texas usually means long terms of high temperatures and energy usage while the winter can bring volatility with periods of normal temperatures and occasionally short spells of very cold temperatures and high usage levels of energy,” Young said. “Naturally, our power usage will increase with extreme cold thereby increasing the customers’ cost.

“When extremes happen on either end of the spectrum, we enter into an energy scarcity condition. Scarcity pricing causes large increases in the wholesale price of energy; however, it also acts as an economic signal to build more generation on the grid.”

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