ERCOT Struggles To Power Texas Amid Enormous Strain On Electric Grid

A UT-Austin energy expert says “we just we just don’t plan our infrastructure around this.”

By Michael Marks & Caroline CovingtonFebruary 16, 2021 11:48 am

More than 4 million Texans were without power Tuesday morning. ERCOT, the nonprofit corporation that manages Texas’ electric grid, had planned for rolling blackouts to deal with energy demands. But so far, the blackouts have not been rolling; many Texans have been without power for hours while others have had no interruptions.

Joshua Rhodes is a research associate at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin. He told Texas Standard ERCOT was not prepared to for the long stretch of below-freezing temperatures that have affected the entire state.

“I think all 254 counties in Texas are under a winter storm warning. I mean, we just don’t plan our infrastructure around this,” Rhodes said. “So houses are just getting colder and colder and colder and we’re just demanding more and more energy.”

Multiple systems strained

“We’re putting strains on the natural gas system and the electricity system. Those two things are related because we burn a lot of natural gas to make electricity,” Rhodes said.

How this is different than energy demand during summer heatwaves

Rhodes says the temperature differential is much greater during this storm than in the summer, when Texans normally try to cool their homes to about 70 degrees.

“So that’s a 30-degree temperature difference from the inside to the outside,” Rhodes said. “But if it gets down to 10 degrees and you’re trying to keep your house at 70 degrees, that’s a 60-degree difference. So, it’s twice as much during the winter than it is in the summer.”

Which type of power has been most taxed?

It’s unclear yet which power source has been hit hardest. The Texas grid uses power from wind, solar, natural gas, coal and more. But Rhodes said ERCOT reported in a Monday press release that it had lost about 30,000 megawatts of mostly “thermal generation,” which includes coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

How does ERCOT decide who loses and who keeps power?

Rhodes says that decision-making process is unclear, and he wonders whether ERCOT has adequate data to make strategic decisions about rolling blackouts. So far during this storm, the process has appeared somewhat random.

“The idea behind rolling outages is you want to keep demand low but also keep homes on long enough to keep their temperature … to give people the time to cook and to clean and to do all the things that they need to do,” Rhodes said. “It’s hard to do that when the power’s out for that long at a time.”