Energy & Environment

December’s freeze highlighted ongoing weaknesses of Texas’ power grid, even without widespread blackouts

Peak demand for electricity during the freeze reached nearly 10 megawatts above what ERCOT forecast.

Power Lines
David J. Phillip/AP
Shown are power lines near Houston on Feb. 16, 2021.

Texas managed to avoid widespread power outages during the hard freeze before Christmas weekend. But there's a lot that needs to be done to protect the electric grid against another nightmare scenario like the great freeze of February 2021.

December's hard freeze came with no precipitation. Ice could have easily forced shutdowns of both coal-fired power plants and wind turbines.

"In which case, we would have been short maybe 20,000 megawatts, and we would have had to go into rolling blackouts across the grid," said University of Houston energy fellow Ed Hirs. "As it turned out, we went to brownouts, in other words, voltage reductions across the grid. Where typically a homeowner gets 120 volts, it was reduced to 115, 110, maybe – a way to ration electricity across the ERCOT grid."

ERCOT also ordered those natural gas-fired plants that could switch to fuel oil or diesel to operate to do so, because of issues getting natural gas to these power plants.

Hirs said the key lesson is that Texas is short on power. He noted that ERCOT issued a seasonal forecast on November 29, 2022, which contemplated demand maxing out at roughly 67 gigawatts. During the December freeze, demand peaked at roughly 76 gigawatts.

"There's not enough investment in the grid, and here we are now. When the Legislature meets, it'll be two years following the freeze in February 2021, and we don't have a plan going forward for making the grid more resilient," he said.

Texas' coal-fired power plants average 50 years in age, and the state's natural gas-fired power plants average 30 years in age. That puts both fleets of plants at the end of their operating lives. Hirs said the private sector is unwilling to invest in new plant construction in Texas with electricity rates at the current levels.

"Apart from the one week in February 2021 with price gouging (during the hard freeze), the average price per kilowatt hour did not rise to the level that would enable a power plant company to build a new gas-fired generator, "Hirs said. "Wall Street is not going to advance capital for five to ten years on the basis of one or two weeks of high prices. There has to be some sort of contractual relationship between the state and power companies to provide the backup generation, and Texas hasn't come up with an approach that works yet."

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is calling for financial incentives for new generation capacity to be added to the grid. That puts him at odds with Governor Greg Abbott, who has said the grid has already been fixed.

"At some point they will probably work their way to a compromise," Hirs said. "Over the next five to ten years, the Texas grid is going to struggle unless the Legislature can come up with some clear direction for the management of the grid."