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Your questions answered on ERCOT and Texas' electric grid during this winter weather

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas manages the electric grid and power flow for 24 million Texans.
Julia Reihs
KUT News
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas manages the electric grid and power flow for 24 million Texans.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has issued back-to-back requests for Texans to conserve energy as freezing temperatures grip the state. The grid operator said it's expecting electricity supply to be tight as residents crank up the heat in their homes.

We asked for your questions about ERCOT and the Texas grid, and provide some answers below.

Why is Texas independent from other power grids on the national level?

Let me recommend The Disconnect. We get into great detail on this question in that podcast. Short answer: regulation.

If major transmission lines cross state lines that leaves the grid open to federal regulation in Texas. Decades ago, basically, when the energy system was evolving, industry, power companies, utilities and politicians in the state decided they did not want that regulation and opted not to allow major transmission lines cross the state's boundary.

There was even a big legal battle over it; you can learn about it here.

There are some interconnections, but they're not very substantial.

Have there actually been improvements to the grid since the last big winter disaster in 2021?

There have been numerous changes on the grid. I think the one that people point to the most are stricter winterization mandates for power plants.

A big problem in 2021 was that power plants broke down in the cold. Now, they need to insulate themselves, essentially, for winter storms ahead of the winter.

There are inspections. The whole thing is enforced more strictly. That should keep them up and running better in cold weather.

After the 2021 blackout, the state also took another look at where the energy infrastructure is most vulnerable — though critics say Texas has not done enough to monitor and secure the natural gas supply chain.

There are also a lot of places where people say we still need improvements. Many analyses say that if we had a similar storm — a storm of the 2021 magnitude — there would still be blackouts in the state. Fortunately, that's not what we're getting right now in January 2024.

What is the likelihood of Texas getting more robust connection to the rest of the national grid?

By national grid, we're talking about the grids that border the state of Texas.

There are currently projects in the works to create more interconnections with grids, especially the grid to our east. These projects take years to complete. The proposal that is furthest along is now called the Southern Spirit Transmission project.

They're also not bringing full interconnection between the Texas grid and neighboring grids. But they do allow for a flow of energy in cases when one grid needs electricity and the other has some to spare.

In terms of actually unifying our grid with neighboring grids, there have been proposals to look into that. Many experts say it would increase reliability and help decarbonize the energy sector.

Democratic Congressman Greg Casar of Austin has also drafted legislation to make that happen. But the proposal has not faced a vote, and full interconnection seems unlikely in the short run.

Is there a chance that due to high energy demand Tuesday the grid could fail?

I take it this question asker means might there be rolling blackouts? It seems unlikely that we'll have rolling blackouts in this winter freeze. There's not the same level of freezing precipitation.

But there have been conservation requests. Whenever there's a conservation request, it means supply is tighter on the grid than is ideal.

But there are other things that the grid operator, ERCOT, might do to balance the grid before it implements planned outages or rolling blackouts.

The blackouts are what I think everyone's afraid of. This is not the same kind of storm that we had in 2021, so blackouts are unlikely. But, of course, we're all keeping an eye on the grid in the coming days.

How can the grid handle the entire city running AC, but have a hard time during the winter with so many of us on gas-powered service?

Lot to unpack here.

Number one, if you're asking about the city energy distribution system, that's different from the statewide grid. City's may manage local energy distribution, but we're talking about the statewide grid.

Number two, in the summer heat last year, and into the fall, had numerous conservation requests in hot weather just like we're getting this week in the cold.

So if your standard of a well-operating grid is that you're not getting asked to conserve energy, I would say conservation requests have happened here in Texas, both in the heat and in the cold weather.

So really, we're seeing it both times.

But it's worth remembering that this grid is still built for hot weather. That's when the state usually gets its highest energy demand, in the high summer heat.

So that might be why we do see more blackouts and big breakdowns in the winter like we saw in 2021. The grid and all its constituent parts were not designed as much with the cold in mind.

What's the best way for Texans to voice their ERCOT concerns during the upcoming legislative section session?

ERCOT is, of course, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. That's the group that manages the state power grid.

Contact your lawmakers, contact your elected representatives if you're concerned with the management of the power grid. I would also say get in touch with the Public Utility Commission of Texas. The PUC is the state regulator; they're like ERCOT's boss and the commissioners are nominated by the governor.

There are ways of reaching out to them or going to their meetings and giving your thoughts about the management of the state grid. That's another avenue for people who want to share their opinions about how things are run when it comes to the state energy system.

Where should people put their thermostat when there's a conservation request?

ERCOT recommends that you just put the thermostat down 2 or so degrees lower than you might typically have it in cold weather.

Obviously, don't do anything to endanger yourself or be too uncomfortable. But, if you can conserve, conserve a little bit beyond what you normally would.

ERCOT says that can be helpful if enough people do that. Others have questioned whether conservation appeals have much of an impact.

Why does ERCOT, that's the state's grid operator, put pressure on residents to conserve power and not businesses?

In the last year, around a dozen times or so, everyday people have been asked to conserve before ERCOT has started getting businesses to cut their power use under programs called "demand response."

I think it's cheaper for the grid operator to do that request for voluntary conservation. That's because they don't pay everyday residents to conserve power like they do some big industrial users. So voluntary conservation is a way for ERCOT to try to squeeze some more megawatts out of the system before they declare an energy emergency and enact mandatory demand response.

I think declaring an energy emergency is something they really want to avoid for many reasons, including PR reasons.

But, after so many requests for conservation, a lot of Texans feel like they're being cheated. They're not getting paid to conserve when big businesses are.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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