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Why is the Texas Power Grid Vulnerable to Blackouts During Winter Storms?

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It was only last year that the state’s power grid buckled under the demand of prolonged freezing temperatures and ice — is it likely to happen again? Texas doesn’t want a replay of 2021’s winter storm, when millions of residents were left in the cold and dark for days with catastrophic, even deadly, results. 

We’ll explore why the Texas power grid may be vulnerable to winter blackouts and what the state is doing to prevent widespread events from happening again. Practically, what can residents do now to prepare for winter weather and potential blackouts?

Causes of the Texas Power Grid Failure

In February 2021, the perfect storm of freezing temperatures and ice shut down natural gas facilities and power plants, which work together to power the state. Most Texas power plants run on natural gas, but availability was nearly cut in half during the storm for three reasons: 1) Power transmission companies cut power to part of the supply chain to conserve energy during the freeze. 2) Frozen equipment caused limited production. 3) Power outages incapacitated the whole process from production to transmission. Additionally, power-generating wind turbines, which provide less than 25% of Texas power, also froze.

Texas has an independent power grid, and about 60% of residents choose a retail power company from the open market. Critics complain that there is not enough oversight and accountability, including difficulties tapping into emergency power relief from other states and regulatory administration safeguards.

Winterization and Increased Demand

Outdated power plants and delinquent winterization maintenance also contributed to the 2021 power grid problems. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), an independent entity that manages power flow for 90% of Texas residents, issues conservation efforts when the power grid is stretched too thin — such as calls for residents to reduce their power usage and rolling brownouts. ERCOT is under the oversight of the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature.

With freezing temperatures in February 2021, Texans were understandably trying to keep warm inside their homes. Conservation efforts didn’t work, as the lack of natural gas and the breakdown in the supply chain meant the grid couldn’t keep up. This winter, Texas’s growing population could further burden the power grid as the temperatures drop. The state’s population grew 1.1% from July 2020 to July 2021, and the Lone Star State is one of the country’s top three in population growth. 

After last year, the Texas legislature issued winterization requirements and warnings for power plants. However, lawmakers didn’t require the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates the gas industry) to quickly address weatherization standards. During milder fall temperatures, power plants are expected to undergo winterization; Texans expect them to thoroughly address concerns in light of recent history, but legislative loopholes have some worried.

While Texas is the number-one oil producer in the U.S., decreased natural gas supply and elevated prices across the country are also a concern as winter demand increases. ERCOT forecasts for expected supply and demand this winter have not been publicized, though state leaders assure residents the power grid is reliable for the coming season. Some analysts show ERCOT’s projection of 73,000 megawatts of power needed for severe weather, while more was required during February 2021 (77,000 megawatts).

Preparing Your Home for Cold Weather

What can you do to make sure your home and families are safe during extreme winter weather? First, you can winterize your home with good seals around windows and doors and proper insulation. Other energy-efficient winter tips include keeping your thermostat at 68 degrees when home and staying warm with layers, blankets, and a wood-burning fireplace. Lower your thermostat even more when you’re away for several hours. These efforts will save you money and reduce demand on the Texas power grid.

Secondly, when harsh weather does blow in, follow ERCOT’s requests for temporary energy conservation to help prevent system-wide blackouts. Finally, don’t wait until it’s an emergency. Prep for a power outage in advance with these tips:

  • Gather emergency supplies in one spot, including flashlights with batteries, candles, bottled water, blankets, and dry wood for the fireplace. 
  • Prep your pipes with insulation to prevent freezing and bursting.
  • If you have a generator, test it and follow safety guidelines, including not running it inside the home or garage.
  • Have your utility company’s number handy (listed at TDU on your power bill) to report outages and follow these tips to prepare and survive a power outage.

To save money on your power bill year round, find a Payless Power electricity plan that suits your budget and power needs. Simply enter your Texas zip code to find a plan ideal for your household.

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