Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to date with the most essential news from Texas.
As a winter storm battered Texas last week, Texans braced for a traumatic repeat of last February’s Uri winter storm: days of huddled for warmth without power or water in the cold glacial.
Anxious shoppers filled grocery stores as the cold front approached. State and local officials, chastised for a lack of communication around Uri, covered the airwaves with warnings of winter weather ahead. Gov. Greg Abbott warned Texans that no one could guarantee the power would stay on during the winter blast – two months after promising it would this winter.
But as the sun rose Friday morning — when the state’s power demand was expected to peak — most Texans breathed sighs of relief as they awoke to find the lights still on and the water still flowing.
Local power outages caused by trees and ice knocking down power lines were numerous. But the state’s power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, withstood freezing temperatures and wintry conditions, averting the widespread outages that left millions of homes without power for days during freezing temperatures in last February.
“Last year, a heavyweight came into the ring and just knocked us out,” said Beth Garza, former director of ERCOT’s independent watchdog. “And this year we only got middleweight. It hit us, we survived and everything was fine.
It’s unclear to what extent efforts mandated last year by state lawmakers to insulate the state’s power generation infrastructure from winter weather have helped the state prepare for the latest cycle. of wintry weather, energy experts and observers said.
Abbott touted legislation he signed last year enacting changes aimed at preventing outages like Uri’s, such as requiring power plants to ensure their facilities can withstand the rigors of the winter. But these changes will likely take years to fully implement.
The main reason why the grid did not fail this time, experts said, was simply that the weather wasn’t as bad.
Last year, freezing temperatures and an avalanche of snow blanketed the entire state for several days, driving record demand and forcing ERCOT to tell utility companies to shut off power as they attempted to avoid a total collapse of the network.
This time, Texas experienced a more typical cold front that hit the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area the hardest, while the Houston area and southern Texas largely escaped it.
“This is the kind of cold front that any grid should be prepared for, and the Texas grid has dealt with it many times before,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.
The diffuse nature of the cold front could be part of the reason, experts say, why statewide power demand hasn’t met expectations. ERCOT forecast demand to peak at around 74,000 megawatts on Friday morning during the worst weather conditions. Instead, demand hit just over 68,000 megawatts – nearly the 69,000 megawatts of demand put on the system last year during last year’s storm.
Peak power demand during last year’s winter storm would have been about 77,000 megawatts had ERCOT not ordered utilities to shut off power to millions of customers, experts estimate.
This time, Texas had enough power generation to handle Uri-level demand, said Caitlin Smith, an ERCOT expert and senior director of Jupiter Power.
According to ERCOT, Texas had 86,000 megawatts of supply in winter weather last week. Natural gas companies cut some supply to power plants during the freezing weather, but it didn’t cause any disruptions. Meanwhile, wind power, which some Republicans in Texas initially blamed on last year’s power outages, generated more electricity than expected, helping to bolster supply.
But there’s no guarantee the grid would have withstood weather conditions at Uri last week, Smith said.
“Maybe Uri is a level five test and it’s level three, and that shows we can pass level three,” Smith said.
That didn’t stop the state’s Republican leadership from winning a victory lap on grid performance last week.
“The Texas power grid is more reliable and resilient than it has ever been,” said Abbott, who has been harassed by Republican and Democratic opponents over the grid failure since last February. at a press conference on Friday.
The Texas Public Utility Commission, the agency that oversees ERCOT, echoed the governor.
“The network’s performance over the past week should reassure Texans that the network is stronger and more reliable than it has ever been,” agency spokesman Rich Parsons said in a statement. a prepared statement.
Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso and Abbott’s most prominent Democratic challenger, has hammered the governor in recent weeks on the grid — embarking on a ‘Keeping the Lights On’ tour. ” this week-end.
“We’re not just going to cross our fingers and hope the grid works,” O’Rourke said. in a tweet on Sunday. “We will fix the grid so we know it will always work.”
For ERCOT watchers, it’s still unclear if the upgraded grid underwent a substantial test last week.
“Just because I have a student passing an easy test doesn’t mean I’m confident he can pass the toughest test I give him,” Cohan said.
Disclosure: Rice University financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune‘journalism. Find a full list here.