Will the Grid Hold Up? Arctic Blast Not Expected to Be as Severe as 2021’s

Temperatures are expected to near or below freezing for much of early next week (Photo by Getty Images)

The coming freeze this weekend may send those who weathered 2021’s Winter Storm Uri and 2023’s Winter Storm Elliot running to the store to stock up on toilet paper for what feels like the inevitable next blackout, but energy experts agree: You shouldn’t be worried. Probably.

Meteorologists originally predicted the arctic front to arrive Sunday evening, but the National Weather Service is now expecting it Saturday evening. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has issued a Weather Watch for Sunday through Wednesday due to expected high demand, but has stated that “grid conditions are expected to be normal.” How much should we trust that assessment?

Independent energy experts are cautiously optimistic. Environment Texas’ Luke Metzger says he doesn’t think there will be rolling outages, as “Texas has done a lot to improve grid reliability since Uri, including inspecting power plants, investing in grid improvement projects, and adding more than 20,000 megawatts of new power supplies. But there’s certainly a chance.” Energy consultant Doug Lewin noted in his Energy and Power Newsletter that the grid’s resilience depends on a couple of things: 1) How cold it gets, and how high demand gets as a result, 2) How much precipitation there is, and 3) How many gas plants go offline and how much renewable energy there is to replace it.

As for temperature, Lewin also points out ERCOT issued no rolling blackouts in 2022, despite similarly low temps; however, notes Lewin, “if temperatures drop into the single digits across most of the state, it will be a very different situation,” as demand on the grid would increase. On the other hand, as of Friday afternoon, ERCOT’s forecast was showing a projected peak demand of 87,000 megawatts on Tuesday. For reference, the all-time peak demand set this past summer was 85,000 megawatts.

There is much less precipitation expected than 2023’s ice hurricane, which will lower the risk of local outages due to heavy ice on tree limbs and power lines that caused Austin’s blackouts last time. The main cause of the grid’s instability during 2021’s winter storm was high demand combined with how much gas generation went offline. Since then, thermal and gas plants have been weatherized at the behest of the legislature. Plus, this summer saw no rolling outages despite record high temperatures and demand, largely due to record high solar production, which is also forecast by ERCOT for next week. “For rolling outages to take place, most or even all of these factors would have to break the wrong way,” writes Lewin. “It’s not likely, but it’s not impossible.”

To prepare for the weather, sign up for city emergency alerts at ReadyCentralTexas.org, and sign up for ERCOT alerts here. Below is a map of temporary Warming Centers operated by the city, and you can find information about overnight Cold Weather Shelters for Saturday-Tuesday nights here or by calling 512/972-5055. If you or a family member requires extra assistance for a medical condition or other mobility or communication need during an emergency, sign up for the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR).

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