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Cold Snap Will Test Texas’ Grid

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An Oncor Electric Delivery crew works on restoring power to a neighborhood following the winter storm that passed through Texas Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in Odessa, Texas.

An Oncor Electric Delivery crew works on restoring power to a neighborhood following the winter storm that passed through Texas Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in Odessa, Texas.
Photo: Eli Hartman (AP)

Temperatures are dropping in central and south Texas Thursday through Friday morning as the state sees a cold front that may send temperatures plummeting as low as 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-8 degrees Celsius) in the Permian Basin on Thursday. These unusually chilly temperatures come just before the one-year anniversary of a historic winter storm that left stretches of the state without power for days—and could be a big test for the electric grid and natural gas supply.

Winter storm warnings are stretching all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border. “Very cold wind chills expected, including during the morning commute on Friday. Total ice accumulations of a light glaze are expected,” the National Weather Service warned.

The operators of Texas’s grid want everyone to know that things are just fine, though, and there’s no need to worry. Ahead of the cold weather, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) filed a final report on Wednesday with the state’s Public Utilities Commission showing that all but three of the more than 320 facilities involved in maintaining the state’s electric grid had passed winterization inspection.

“The Texas electric grid is more prepared for winter operations than ever before,” interim ERCOT CEO Brad Jones said in a statement attached to the report.

Despite ERCOT’s assurances, there is some reason for concern; some experts noted that the natural gas infrastructure, in particular, hasn’t been fully winterized and is still at risk. Natural gas supply freezing and being unavailable during last February’s storm was a key reason for the devastating blackouts, which the state found caused more than 240 deaths. (Other analyses have found the death toll to be much higher.)

It’s already been pretty cold this month in Texas—and it’s created a bit of havoc in the state’s natural gas supply. During a cold front at the beginning of January, filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported by Bloomberg show that 1 million cubic feet of gas in the Permian Basin was flared due to frozen equipment. Bloomberg data also shows that gas output in the Permian fell by 20% during the cold snap, its lowest levels since last year. More than 10% of the supply was cut off from the grid during this time. On Wednesday, pipeline operator Kinder Morgan told customers that it could face “supply shortfalls” and blackouts thanks to the upcoming cold front.

These freezes and gaps in output also created some serious pollution earlier this winter. Eleven facilities that had issues with supply also released about 85 tons of sulfur dioxide and 11 tons of carbon monoxide, filings seen by Bloomberg show. 

The latest cold front will be a test for the system. But it’s unlikely Texas will see problems anywhere close to what it experienced last year. “I’m not really too panicky,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Washington Post about the upcoming cold front. “But I will be curious to see how the gas systems perform. That’s the weak link in the system, and all eyes should be on that.”

Still, the issues from the cold spell earlier this month point to ongoing problems with Texas’ reliance on fossil fuel infrastructure. “These failures simultaneously put our citizens at risk of power failures when they need it most and release huge amounts of pollution due to line freezes,” Environment Texas Research and Policy Center’s Michael Lewis said in a statement on the recent gas supply drops. “The Railroad Commission and gas companies need to get their act together and start weatherizing these facilities as soon as possible.

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