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Texas' Grid Operator Warns Rolling Blackouts Are Possible As Winter Storm Escalates Demand For Electricity

Electrical power lines in Del Valle.
Eddie Gaspar
The Texas Tribune
Electrical power lines in Del Valle. Power demand is expected to break an all-time record during a statewide winter storm.

The nonprofit organization that operates Texas’ power grid warned Sunday that it may be forced to impose rolling outages in the state on Monday and Tuesday as a major winter storm brings record low temperatures and causes massive demand for electricity.

Power reserves in the state were stable Sunday afternoon, but the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is anticipating the need to go into emergency operations from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning, said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT.

“During this fairly unprecedented cold weather event across the entire state, electric demand is expected to exceed our previous winter peak record set in January of 2018 by up to 10,000 megawatts,” Woodfin said. “In fact, the peak demand on Monday and Tuesday is currently forecasted to meet or exceed our all time summer peak demand of 74,820 megawatts.”

On Sunday, the grid set a new winter record for demand when it reached 69,150 megawatts between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Texans purchase their electricity from companies, cooperatives or cities, but ERCOT works with those utility providers to manage the flow of power to more than 90% of the state.

If demand comes closer to capacity, ERCOT can declare a level-one, level-two or level-three energy emergency alert, which allows the council to use additional resources to respond to demand. According to ERCOT’s alert steps, the organization can import power from other regions, request extra power from transmission companies and release generation reserves under these alerts.

Temporary power outages are a last resort and would generally only occur after other resources had been exhausted. Woodfin said outages would be more likely to occur on Monday and Tuesday, but there is “certainly a possibility” that something could change and they could occur Sunday evening.

“If the additional resources available during an EEA (are) still not sufficient to balance generation and load, and we still don't have enough resources to serve the demand, then we could have to implement what's called rotating outages … so that we've got enough resources to cover what's what's left,” Woodfin said.

Outages typically last from 10 to 45 minutes for residential neighborhoods and small businesses, but the exact response would vary by transmission company, according to protocols for emergency alerts from ERCOT. ERCOT has only instituted three systemwide rotating outages in its history. The most recent one was more than 10 years ago on Feb. 2, 2011 in response to a blizzard affecting the state.

“We are experiencing record-breaking electric demand due to the extreme cold temperatures that have gripped Texas," Bill Magness, ERCOT President and CEO, said in a press release on Sunday. "At the same time, we are dealing with higher-than-normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units. We are asking Texans to take some simple, safe steps to lower their energy use during this time."

The National Weather Service had issued a winter storm warning for every county in the state as of Sunday afternoon. Areas across the state are expected to see temperatures in the low teens, harsh wind chills and varying degrees of freezing rain and snow through Monday evening.

“The system could lead to major stress on the region’s infrastructure as well as cripple travel,” the National Weather Service said in an alert Sunday for south central Texas. “The coldest temperatures since 1989 will impact the region. Wind chill indices could fall to between 15 below zero to near zero late tonight.”

In response to the storm, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide disaster declaration Friday for all 254 counties in the state. He also deployed the Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Military Department and other agencies to assist with the storm response.

According to an Abbott press release, the White House issued a federal emergency declaration Sunday for Texas due to the winter weather after a request from the governor. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide federal assistance and help with care and shelter statewide.

“I thank President Biden for quickly issuing a Federal Emergency Declaration for Texas as we continue to respond to severe winter weather conditions throughout the state,” Abbott said. “This disaster declaration provides Texas with additional resources and assistance that will help our communities respond to this winter weather."

ERCOT is urging households and businesses to reduce their electricity usage through Tuesday. Texans can reduce their electricity usage by turning down their thermostats below 68 degrees, unplugging lights and appliances, and avoiding use of large appliances like ovens and washing machines, according to a press release from ERCOT.

“The lowest temperatures Texas has seen in decades necessitate a shared response across the state, from households to factories,” DeAnn Walker, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said in the press release. “Along with the tools ERCOT uses to maintain the reliability of the grid, common sense conservation also plays a critical role in our state’s endurance of this challenge.”

Along with conserving energy, state officials are strongly discouraging Texans from traveling on roads due to the dangerous driving conditions caused by the ice and sleet. In some areas, officials have said the roads are impassable, and road conditions are expected to deteriorate further as the storm gets worse in the state.

“Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” the National Weather Service wrote in an alert Sunday for parts of Southeast Texas. “Prepare for power outages and have non-perishable food and water on hand. Do not travel unless it is an emergency. If you must travel, keep an extra blanket, flashlight, food, and water in your vehicle in case you become stranded.”

From The Texas Tribune

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