Frigid temperatures, ice, snow, and wind are causing real danger in parts of the U.S. The State of Texas is getting lots of headlines. Unusually cold temperatures for that area are causing power outages for several reasons.

High demand for power: Texas is often the center of electricity demand when it is hot. The cold has now created immense demand to the point that ERCOT, the regional transmission organization that governs the power in that region is calling for rolling blackouts.

A rolling blackout is used when the demand for electricity exceeds the power supply capability of the power system. Rolling blackouts happen usually for one of two reasons: Inadequate generation capacity or insufficient transmission infrastructure to deliver power to where it is needed.

Plant shutdowns: Blackouts can be necessitated when there are power plant failures. “The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter.” (Source)

Power use records are being tested in Texas. “Electric demand is expected to exceed the state’s previous winter-peak record set in January 2018 by 10,000 megawatts. And peak demand expected for Monday and Tuesday is forecasted to meet or exceed the state’s summertime record for peak demand of 74,820 megawatts.” (Source)

In this kind of weather, something has to give, in other words. “Rotating blackouts occur when power companies cut off electricity to residential neighborhoods and small businesses, typically for 10 to 45 minutes before being rotated to another location, ERCOT said. Traffic lights and infrastructure may also lose power during these blackouts.”  (Source)

In Texas, what started as rolling blackouts – expected for 30-40 minutes – are lasting longer though. The power system combined with energy demand and extreme weather make this a dynamic situation.

Houston TV reports the staggering assessment of the cold:

  • Texas’ power grid experienced a systemwide failure Monday morning as demand surged due to the historic winter conditions across the state.
  • Grid managers declared an emergency after the record-breaking energy use strained utilities beyond capacity.
  • Outages across Texas could last for hours due to multiple power generation plants that are offline, according to officials.
  • An estimated 75% of Texas power generation capacity is impacted.
  • The failures could last into at least Tuesday as crews work to bring plants back online.

The Austin American Statesman (left) put it like this: “‘Basically we’re stuck here’: 40% of Austin Energy homes without power amid failed ‘rotating blackouts'”. The paper adds, “The power shutdown left nearly 40% of Austin Energy households without heat or services… It also created confusion with residents wondering why they had lost power when others had not — and when they might get it back.”

“The brutal cold striking Texas – ironically the capital of the U.S. energy industry and home of some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies – is emblematic of a world facing more unpredictable weather due to the rising impact of climate change.” That was noted in Bloomberg News.

“But wait, there’s more!” The anomaly in Texas right now is a lesson for everyone. This is not a Texas-only issue. Sister regional organizations to ERCOT are issuing warnings about rolling blackouts. Other parts of the nation are having blackouts.

All kinds of customers, all kinds of power generation, all kinds of transmission and distribution systems are challenged. The power system is being tested with weather – hot and cold – and being tested as the electric system is evolving. Utilities must do extraordinary planning and execution for the future to serve customers. Regulators must understand the power system as never before and clear the way for advancement in the system.

This should not be used as a finger-pointing exercise. As a nation we can plan for the expected, but there will be surprises, too. Hold on tight. Look ahead. Act wisely.


Feature image sent Monday, Feb. 15, from a friend in Pflugerville, TX, near Austin. Not a common sight in “Hill Country.”