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Extreme winter weather still threatens Texas' electric grid, ERCOT assessment finds

Control room at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT manages the electric grid and power flow for 24 million Texans.
Julia Reihs
Control room at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT manages the electric grid and power flow for 24 million Texans.

The Texas grid should run smoothly under normal winter conditions, but extreme weather could still pitch Texans into darkness, according to an assessment released Friday by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

The report, known as a Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy, says the grid is well positioned to supply enough power to meet demand under normal and moderately challenging winter conditions. But extreme weather could cause increased electricity demand while causing breakdowns along the energy supply chain, resulting in blackouts.

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The assessments, released four times a year, are based on a number of assumptions about energy supply, demand and likely weather conditions. They can often raise more questions than they answer.

This time around, some analysts say, the state’s grid operator is being overly optimistic about the weather and what it will mean for electricity demand (often referred to as “load”).

“We expect there’s a 10% chance that demand will exceed what ERCOT considers to be their extreme peak load scenario,” Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M who has been researching the grid, told KUT. “In my opinion that’s not a great worst-case scenario. One in 10 things happen all the time.”

Others have questioned whether ERCOT is underestimating how much power generation could break down in another deep freeze, including freeze-offs in the natural gas supply chain.

Those two factors, supply and demand, are crucial to maintaining the reliability of the grid. If they fall out of balance, ERCOT is forced to take measures, including widespread power cuts, to restore balance on the system.

It was an effort to restore that balance to the grid that led ERCOT to cut power to millions for days during February's winter storm.

ERCOT’s assessment comes on the heels of another report from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. that found the Texas grid remains vulnerable to blackouts in the event of another big winter storm.

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Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.