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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Despite frigid cold, Texas power grid has kept the heat on so far

Power lines in Fort Worth, Texas, on Jan. 15, 2024. Millions of Texans waking up to wickedly cold air on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, hoped that the state’s power grid, which failed spectacularly during a deep freeze in 2021, would hold up this time. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

By Michael Corkery and Colbi Edmonds

Millions of Texans endured wickedly cold air earlier this week, but the Texas power grid, which failed spectacularly during a deep freeze in 2021, held firm.

After issuing a request for Texans to conserve electricity Tuesday morning, a time that posed a crucial test for the power supply, the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, indicated that it had sufficient power available to handle expected demand for the rest of the day. The situation was expected to further improve with a forecast rise in temperatures.

Wind chills fell below zero in the morning in cities such as Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. Many businesses were reopening after a long holiday weekend, but several major school districts, including those in Houston and Dallas, remained closed because of the weather.

By late Tuesday morning, ERCOT had ended its call for energy conservation, saying in a statement that Texans’ efforts, “along with additional grid reliability tools, helped us get through record-breaking peak times today and yesterday morning.”

Another moment of strain on the grid had been expected in the evening but that, too, passed without incident.

Brutal winter weather in February 2021 caused the state’s electricity grid to fail, with millions of people losing power for days. The failure contributed to the deaths of more than 240 people.

State officials have taken steps since then to prevent such critical infrastructure from failing again when demand increases during cold weather. The state has expanded the amount of solar power on the grid, in addition to large amounts of wind energy.

Even as officials projected confidence in the bolstered electrical grid, though, ERCOT was not ruling out the possibility of rolling blackouts, in which electricity is deliberately shut off to certain areas, then restored to those areas and shut off elsewhere. This emergency measure is meant to keep peak demand from overwhelming the grid and causing more widespread and prolonged outages.

Winter mornings are particularly taxing on the grid. That is when temperatures tend to be near their lowest; the wind that drives electrical turbines is often quiet; and the sunlight that powers the solar panels is not strong enough.

Several Texas mayors implored residents to take safety precautions in the extreme cold. Warming shelters in Austin were slated to remain in operation through Tuesday morning, after housing 400 people overnight, many of them vulnerable homeless people at risk of hypothermia.

“It is very, very cold,” Mayor Kirk Watson of Austin said Monday.

Highways in Dallas were clear before sunrise Tuesday, despite worries from officials there that wet roads could refreeze. Some water-main breaks were reported in Dallas and Fort Worth, and the region’s two largest school districts announced closings Tuesday because of the potential for ice on the streets and dangerous temperatures for children waiting for the bus. Many other school districts were open.

At Wellington Elementary School in the city of Flower Mound, teachers were taking turns standing outside beside the car drop-off lane, rotating after five minutes. Cars were backed up after the bell rang. Bike racks were empty, and a few bundled-up children ran on foot to school.

“I understand they only have a certain amount of bad-weather days here,” said Susan Maslanka, a crossing guard. “But at the same time, having all these schools open, with the temperatures and the grid as tight as it is, it’s a little bit silly.”

At 6 a.m., the temperature at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was 13 degrees, with a wind chill reading of minus 5.

ERCOT said there had been no power disruptions Monday, when electricity use surpassed a previous record of peak winter demand that was set during the cold snap of December 2022.

A forecast by ERCOT had estimated that if temperatures in January fell as low as they did in December 2022, there would be about a 1-in-6 chance of rolling blackouts occurring during the morning hours.

Although a lot of attention is focused on Texas, the state is far from the only place hoping that crucial utility infrastructure will not fail under the strain of the cold weather.

In 2021, while millions of Texans found themselves without electricity, many people in the Mississippi state capital, Jackson, were without water for weeks. And on Christmas in 2022, tens of thousands of people in Jackson did not have running water because some of the system’s pipes could not withstand the subfreezing temperatures.

One of Jackson’s water plants was built in 1914, and some of the city’s water issues stem from the age of the city’s infrastructure. As freezing temperatures become more frequent in the South, they have exposed vulnerabilities in systems designed for mild winters.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements in facilities that were never built for cold weather,” said Ted Henifin, interim manager of Jackson’s drinking water system. “We’re feeling good about where we are.”

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