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Extreme winter weather could still lead to blackouts, Texas’ power grid operator says

Gabriel C. Pérez
Ice covers trees and power lines in South Austin during a winter storm in February 2021.

A seasonal report from ERCOT shows the grid should hold up under normal winter conditions. But there are scenarios in which the grid operator would need to institute blackouts like it did in 2021.

An assessment of the Texas power grid released Tuesday finds that the electric system should run smoothly under typical winter conditions. But if circumstances similar to those Texas experienced in February 2021 were to repeat themselves, blackouts would again likely grip the state.

The  Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy, or SARA, is a quarterly report issued by the state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It aims to evaluate the grid’s ability to function under different electricity supply-and-demand conditions ahead of each season. It has gained increased attention since the massive blackout in 2021 left millions in the state without power for days.

This year’s winter assessment shows the grid should operate without any hiccups under normal conditions.

“I absolutely expect the lights to stay on,” Public Utility Commission Chair Peter Lake said in a news conference Tuesday.

But the report does show circumstances in which high electricity demand could meet unexpected drops in supply that would force the grid operator to institute blackouts like it did last year.

“There is a scenario where under the most extreme conditions there could be not enough power,” ERCOT's new CEO, Pablo Vegas, said at the same news conference. “That’s not acceptable”

Vegas blamed shrinking winter energy reserves on the increase of solar power generation in the state and called for the construction of more “dispatchable” power generation.

“That's the generation with an on-off switch that you can call on whenever you need it, regardless of what the weather conditions are,” he said.

While dispatchable power could be supplied by increased battery storage or other means, many Texas policymakers see “dispatchable” generation as nearly synonymous with natural gas power generation.

Underlying assumptions

Some questioned the underlying assumptions ERCOT used in the report.

During the 2021 blackout, the state’s natural gas supply system could not deliver fuel to power plants, exacerbating the power crunch. Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist at UT Austin who specializes in energy systems, says those problems may recur despite official assurances that they are being addressed.

“It doesn't look like they took into account fuel-related issues for power plants if we get into these super cold conditions,” he said. “I worry that some of these unplanned outage numbers [in the assessment] might actually be too low because we're not taking into account the fuel side.”

Others have wondered whether the assessment underestimates a potential deficit between electricity supply and demand in extreme circumstances.

“There’s limited usefulness in infinite speculation,” Lake said when asked why the report had not considered a more “extreme” energy demand scenario.

From KUT