Freezing Texas Dodges Power Grid Disaster, For Now: ‘It’s Like Russian Weather Roulette’

It’s chilly in Texas, forecast to get down to 27 degrees in Houston and into the teens in Dallas. Some freezing rain fell today, contributing to downed power lines. As of midnight, Friday morning, 17,000 customers were without power on the Texas grid (known as ERCOT, for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas). 

But so far this cold snap has been nothing like the 2021 deep freeze, which was some 15 degrees colder and accompanied by copious freezing rain. Last year’s disaster knocked out power to millions for days, caused busted pipes and killed hundreds. Still, PTSD from that ordeal is real. Many grocery stores Thursday night had been cleared of toilet paper, bottled water and milk.

This year, ERCOT says it has ample power generation available for now, with current demand at 62,000 megawatts against system capacity of 82,000. There is however a very real chance that grid demand on Friday could surpass the Texas all-time summer peak of 74,820 mw in 2019. 

According to ERCOT’s day-ahead power pricing, the real test will come around 7 a.m. on Friday, when folks wake up and crank up the heat. For promising Thursday to provide power to the grid early Friday morning, generators will make around $400 per megawatthour (about 40 cents per kwh) — or roughly ten times more than under normal conditions. 

Last year, in contrast, power prices hit their regulatory limit of $9,000 per mwh, and stayed there for two days. The winners and losers from those trades are still fighting it out in court. Since then, the Public Utility Commission has reduced the peak price to $5,000/mwh — in part to reduce the incentive for unscrupulous power traders to purposefully goose prices by withdrawing generation capacity. 

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Again, there doesn’t appear to be any big risk of rolling blackouts in ERCOT tonight caused by insufficient electrons on the lines. Many power plants last year finally invested in the kind of winterizations recommended after freezes in 2011 and 2014. 

A popular angle: that bitcoin miners in Texas are helping to ameliorate grid stress by shutting down their GPUs and instead allowing juice to flow to the grid. Yes they are, under the terms of their so-called “demand response” contracts with their power providers. But as Ed Hirs, lecturer in energy economics at the Univ. of Houston, points out: “their impact is marginal at best.” 

Far more important tonight is that the wind keep blowing in west Texas; ERCOT is counting on 10,000 mw of wind generation to satisfy power demand. Last year many wind turbines went offline, their iced over blades unable to turn. There’s ways to winter-proof turbines, by installing heating elements in the blades — but it’s not a common retrofit and few wind farm owners are willing to foot the bill. 

Indeed it’s not easy to force power providers to invest in winterization. “The generators are pushing back and want to be paid for what they are doing,” says Hirs. But they aren’t doing enough, he insists, and neither is Gov. Greg Abbott or the Public Utility Commission. Indeed it should be up to the PUC to ensure that power generators are responsible for investing what is necessary to maintain electric reliability in Texas. 

It is ridiculous of course, for three-quarters of a state with 26 million people to get so worried over winter weather. This time, says Hirs, “The odds are in our favor, but it’s like Russian weather roulette. What’s been done so far isn’t enough to save us. We’re exposed.”

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