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Heading into a really cold snap this week, Texans wonder if the power grid can handle it

Ice forms on tree branches in South Austin during freezing rain last February.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Ice forms on tree branches in South Austin during freezing rain last February.

Subfreezing temperatures are expected to hit most of Texas on Thursday into Friday. North Texas could see single digits, Central Texas will see temps in the teens. Temperatures in much of the state are not expected to get back above freezing until Saturday.

For some people, this brings back unpleasant memories of the winter storm and resulting blackouts in February 2021. But the weather ahead differs from that storm in several key ways: Temperatures will be slightly warmer, no significant precipitation is forecast, and the extreme cold (for Texas) is not expected to last for days on end.

As of Monday afternoon, ERCOT, the power grid operator for much of the state, is forecasting peak electricity demand to come in just above 69,000 megawatts on Friday morning. One megawatt is roughly enough to power 200 homes in normal conditions. That level of demand is slightly higher than ERCOT's normal forecast scenarios for its peak winter demand, which were included in a seasonal outlook released last month.

But that's significantly lower than demand during the height of the 2021 storm.

Of course, any of these factors could change.

State regulators say they're confident that changes they've made to the grid — including new winterization requirements for power plants in the state — will ward off the kind of failures we saw during the blackout. But there has yet to be a real test of those changes.

“Providing Texans with a reliable electric grid is our highest priority. As we monitor weather conditions, we want to assure Texans that the grid is resilient and reliable,” ERCOT CEO Pablo Vegas said Friday. “We will keep the public informed as weather conditions change throughout the coming week.”

Independent grid watchers have also said grid problems are unlikely during this weather event.

Doug Lewin, who heads the energy consultant group Stoic Energy, tweeted Sunday that he didn't think there would be any "bulk grid problems."

But Lewin also pointed to the state's gas distribution system as a potential for trouble. Much of the power plant outages in the 2021 blackout were due to disruptions in fuel supply to natural gas power plants — caused by freezing gas equipment along the distribution route. The Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and gas in the state, recently passed weatherization standards for gas transmission, but any improvements have not been tested in an actual winter event.

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Matt has been a reporter at KUT off and on since 2006. He came to Austin from Boston, then went back for a while--but couldn't stand to be away--so he came back to Austin. Matt grew up in Maine (but hates lobster), and while it might sound hard to believe, he thinks Maine and Texas are remarkably similar.