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Winter Weather Will Test Texas’ Grid

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Icicles hang off the State Highway 195 sign that says "Texas."

Icicles hang off the State Highway 195 sign on Feb. 18, 2021 in Killeen, Texas. Another cold snap is headed to the state.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Stop me if you’ve heard this setup before: Temperatures are expected to plummet in Texas as snow and ice descend on the state.

The Lone Star State is about to experience its first widespread taste of winter since last February when a historic cold snap knocked off natural gas generators and froze up pipelines, creating a deadly blackout. This cold onslaught might not be quite as extreme, but it could put a strain on the infrastructure that keeps the lights on and homes warm.

Arctic air is currently plunging across the Midwest and will reach Texas by Thursday morning. That will cause temperatures to plummet precipitously over a very short period. Daytime highs will drop from the upper 70s on Wednesday to right near the freezing mark on Thursday, a 40-plus-degree-Fahrenheit (20-plus-degree-Celsius) dip. Overnight lows will be even chillier, dipping below freezing for much of the state.

The National Weather Service has issued winter storm watches from central Texas all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, reflecting the widespread, extreme nature of what’s coming. Strong gusts accompanying the big chill will mean wind chill values in the teens as far south as San Antonio. They’ll be in the 20s further south in Laredo, which sits right on the border. There, the local NWS office is warning that hypothermia is a real risk given the lack of cold weather preparation in a region used to mild winters.

The wild temperature swing will be accompanied by a mix of snow and freezing rain. The NWS Corpus Christi office is also warning of “significant icing” that could impact travel. Some snow is also likely, and a few flakes could even fly in Houston, the epicenters of last year’s deep freeze. The one saving grace about this mess is temperatures should rebound by the weekend, unlike last year when multiple days of bone-chilling temperatures left residents shivering for warmth.

Still, the cold snap is definitely going to bring back shades of last February for residents. And it will give the grid a run for its money. The state has spent years creating an energy market with few regulations that kept electricity cheap but left the grid with little redundancy or extra capacity. That left it vulnerable to both extreme heat and cold, times when demand usually peaks to keep things comfortable.

Last year’s grid collapse illustrated the failure of this approach in a horrific fashion. A peer-reviewed look at what happened found that natural gas plants and pipelines lacked appropriate weatherization because of the aforementioned deregulation, leading to catastrophic shortages of generating capacity and home heating. Customers were stuck with five-figure energy bills (again, thanks to deregulation). A BuzzFeed News investigation found that roughly 700 people died during the power outages as a result of lack of heat, carbon monoxide poisoning, and underlying medical conditions.

Since then, many conservative lawmakers have spent their time falsely demonizing renewables, relying on partial fixes and fossil fuel giveaways rather than the complete overhaul needed to ensure the lights stay on, and saying bitcoin mining will fix all this somehow. A new and very timely Texas Monthly article lays bare just how misguided this is as well as the fact that a real plan to winterize infrastructure would cost pennies on the dollar compared to doing nothing. Of course, fixing all that ails the grid isn’t an overnight endeavor. But last year’s blackout and the specter of a fresh round of challenges with this week’s blast of winter weather have made it clear it’s more important than ever.

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