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Texans asked to conserve energy Monday as expected demand likely to put strain on electric grid

By Alejandro Serrano and Emily Foxhall, The Texas Tribune

Texans asked to conserve energy Monday as expected demand likely to put strain on electric grid” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas power grid operator is asking residents to conserve power Monday morning when a blast of cold weather is expected to bring temperatures well below freezing for much of the state.

Parts of Texas will experience wind chills below 0 degrees, and some areas could see icy roads as subfreezing temperatures continue moving south through the state Sunday and Monday. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says that cold weather will bring “record-breaking demand” for power at the same time that the state is experiencing “unseasonably low wind,” limiting the amount of electricity fed into the grid by windmills.

The conservation request is from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday, when the sun is fully up, solar power is expected to boost the power supply.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas echoed the call for conservation.

“ERCOT continues to use all available tools to manage the grid reliably, including using reserve power, calling upon reductions by large electric customers that have volunteered to lower their energy use, and bringing more generation online sooner,” the PUC said in a press release.

A conservation notice is voluntary and is the first step to ensuring the grid can withstand high demand. If conditions worsen, ERCOT would enter emergency operations, including rolling blackouts. The state stressed Sunday that the call to conserve did not mean it had entered emergency conditions.

During conservation requests, ERCOT asks residents to avoid using large appliances and to turn off lights. The request is the first since this summer, when high temperatures about a dozen conservation requests.

Gov. Greg Abbott warned Texans on Friday to prepare for several days of cold weather during which temperatures may not rise above freezing, potentially snapping pipes and dropping tree limbs on power lines.

But Abbott and other state leaders were confident that the state’s main power grid would hold through what’s being called an “arctic blast.”

“We feel very good about the status of the Texas power grid and [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] to be able to effectively and successfully ensure that the power is going to stay on throughout the entirety of this winter storm episode,” Abbott said Friday.

[How Texans can prepare for extreme weather]

The frigid weather across the entire state started Saturday and is expected to remain until Wednesday. As of 4 p.m. Sunday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s main grid, was forecasting supply and demand to be their tightest on Monday and Tuesday mornings.

Abbott on Friday said power generators have been inspected and winterized and said officials have secondary sources of fuel available to keep the grid up during the tight stretches.

The governor said such preparation distinguished this cold snap from Winter Storm Uri in 2021, when a freeze arrived before Valentine’s Day and plunged temperatures, causing all types of power generators to fail. Natural gas production faltered, a problem for power plants that rely on it. To prevent a complete grid collapse, electric grid operators cut power to millions who were trying to stay warm. At least 246 people died during the storm, per the state’s official count, though some estimates are higher.

This week’s cold conditions are not expected to last as long as 2021’s freeze, Abbott said.

“This will be one of the coldest episodes they will have lived through in the state of Texas. It will last for several days but it will not be anything close to what we experienced during Winter Storm Uri,” Abbott said. “We are much, much more prepared for this.”

On Sunday into Monday, a mix of freezing rain and sleet is expected for a large swath of Central and North Texas, from Killeen through Dallas-Fort Worth to the Oklahoma border, according to the National Weather Service. Wind chills could dip to -12 degrees.

In the Panhandle, wind chills are expected to remain below freezing for much Sunday, according to the weather service.

Austin, San Antonio and the counties surrounding them could see minor ice accumulations from Sunday night through noon Monday, the weather service predicted. Wind chills could drop to the single digits in those areas.

In case of precipitation during such cold temperatures, emergency officials urged people to remain off roads that could become glazed with ice that’s difficult to see. Freezing precipitation can also weigh down tree limbs that knock out power, causing localized outages that state leaders said should be reported to local power providers.

ERCOT has issued what it calls a “weather watch,” calling on people to be aware that it expects power demand to be high Monday through Wednesday. ERCOT must make sure electricity demand never exceeds supply, or the grid could be catastrophically damaged. The margin between supply and demand could get low during those days.

ERCOT was bracing for Tuesday morning demand to exceed 85,000 megawatts. Last January, the highest demand was 65,632 megawatts. (One megawatt can power about 200 homes during high demand.)

Grid issues have been politically fraught since the deadly 2021 storm. Legislators in 2021 required power plants to winterize their equipment better. In 2023, state politicians passed measures designed to get more gas-fueled power plants built on the grid, arguing that Texas needed power sources that could come on anytime, unlike wind or solar power that rely on the wind to blow or the sun to shine.

Last year, ERCOT asked Texans to conserve power voluntarily more than 10 times. Demand for power was higher than ever — hitting a record 85,508 megawatts in August — as the growing state weathered its hottest year ever recorded. Climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions created from activities such as burning oil and gas is pushing temperatures hotter around the globe.

For months, the grid operator has expected that, at 8 a.m. on any given day in January, there could be a nearly 8% chance of going into emergency conditions and a nearly 7% chance of calling for power cuts. In the event of a strong winter storm, they put those risks at almost 21% and 17%, respectively. In October, calling that an “unacceptable” risk, ERCOT asked companies if they would bring old gas or coal-fired plants back online.

No company said they would bring an old plant back online. ERCOT President and CEO Pablo Vegas then said that the request had been an “extra layer of precaution.”

“There’s not an expectation of an energy emergency and we are not calling for conservation at this point in time. Now, things can change, and if it does change, we’ll continue to communicate openly over the course of this weekend,” Vegas said Friday. “The grid is better prepared than it’s ever been before.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/12/texas-power-grid-conservation-arctic-blast/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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