Heat, air conditioning, lights, and appliances are all modern conveniences that are expected to work without a hitch. But what happens in a weather emergency, like Texas’s Winter Storm Uri in early 2021? An unprecedented freeze caused such heavy demand on the state’s power grid that millions lost power for days, resulting in catastrophic damages and loss.
The deregulated Texas power grid had its vulnerability on full display. Texas power independence pitted against potential electricity shutdowns can be a struggle for Lone Star residents to grasp, especially when shivering in freezing temperatures.
Why is it so hard to get emergency back-up power for the state’s power grid? Can Texas borrow power from other states in a weather crisis? Read on for background on the Texas power grid and why relief from other states is unlikely.
Texas’s Lone Power Grid
Across the United States, three major power grids run the nation’s electricity — the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Texas Interconnected system (aka, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT). ERCOT helps power more than 90% of the state’s electric demand. All three grids are connected, but operate independently.
Texas, the nation’s leading energy-producing state, is rich in electricity-producing materials like oil and other fossil fuels. To keep the state free from federal oversight, power is kept within state lines, thus creating an “electrical island” with its own Texas power grid. Further, the Texas electricity market was deregulated in 1995, meaning no single company owns all the power plants, transmission lines, and distribution networks.
A majority of Texas residents choose from dozens of power companies from an open market. Bi-partisan support for free market power passed easily in Texas in the late 90s. Proponents say deregulation results in competition and cost savings for power customers, both residential and commercial. You can read more on the Texas power grid here.
Borrowing Electricity — Possible, Not Probable
The perfect storm of February 2021’s power outages was this: Texas’s power plants and wind turbines (which provide 25% of the state’s power) weren’t winterized properly, coupled with high-level demand as people tried to heat their homes. Typically, the state’s warm weather equals high usage in the summer heat, not the winter. The storm resulted in a power grid failure.
As a result, ERCOT gained national attention and had state and federal leaders looking for ways to maintain reliable power in a weather crisis. Some state leaders, like the legislature, called for more investment into winterization, power plants, transmission lines and infrastructure. Others called for more federal oversight and power connection across state lines.
One way other states prevent such massive blackouts is the ability to borrow power from outside their state lines. Under current state guidelines, however, Texas can borrow only a limited amount of power from other grids.
According to this report and panel discussion hosted by The Texas Tribune, two major schools of thought exist:
- Keep Texas’s power grid independent without federal regulations slowing down changes and improvements, while addressing known weaknesses like weatherization and maintaining adequate power reserve margins.
- Connect to the national power grid without losing autonomy due to federal law protections, without the need for legislative approval. One study estimates an additional gigawatt of borrowed capacity could have saved nearly $1 billion and prevented blackouts in about 200,000 Texas homes. Some energy panel experts mentioned selling power to other states in need, as well.
However, the Public Utility Commission released a statement quoted in the Tribune saying there were no plans to connect Texas’s power grid to other states and they are focused on Texas grid improvements and reliability. Independent power is where the grid presently stands.
Whoever wins the long-term struggle of independence versus connectedness, Texas residents are hoping and praying the power grid improvements passed by the legislature are happening quickly. The state’s growing population is adding demand — and residents just want to keep the lights on.