After Big Freeze blackouts, Texas power grid challenged during triple-digit heatwave

As blistering, triple-digit heat is testing the limits of the Texas power grid, ERCOT is warning Texans to conserve as much electricity use, as possible. Under normal circumstances, such a warning to conserve would probably be a worrisome inconvenience. 

However, in the time since the February 2021 Big Freeze, the stability of the Texas power grid is a political lightning rod where failure will not be accepted by those who depend on the electricity being on.  

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In the middle of Monday's Houston heat, Matthew Jones had Eleanor Tinsley Park to himself to work out, while most people were looking for cooling-comfort inside. 

"This Houston heat ain't no joke!" he says. No joke, indeed. 

Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti leads the University of Houston's Energy Advisory Board, and says weekday power demands and triple-digit heat are a difficult combination for the power-grid, even on its best day. 

"It's not a surprise. ERCOT has many structural deficiencies, and this is one manifestation of it," he says.

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The Electric Reliability Council of Texas warned users that the day would be challenging, asking for conservation between the peak-usage hours of 2 and 8 p.m., and that rolling blackouts could be possible. 

As demand approached available resources, ERCOS says it continues to use all tools available to manage the grid, including using reserve power and calling upon large electric customers who have volunteered to lower their energy use. 

"ERCOT should be able to manage this particular situation," says Dr. Krishnamoorti. "But just look at projections. I'm truly skeptical that they can keep us away from rolling blackouts."

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But why is this happening after the crippling Big Freeze blackout that left millions in the dark, and reforms passed by the legislature designed to 'fix' the grid's shortcomings? Dr. Krishnamoorti says reforms will take time to work while power generators are incentivized to operate in moments just like this. 

"The only time when they make money is when they get to situations like today, where demand is almost matched by supply, maybe slightly exceeds supply, and that's when prices skyrocket," he says.

While solar power generation certainly did well during the heatwave, weather conditions have all but taken wind power out of the equation for the day. Though there was an elevated cost for generating electricity, it was nothing like the astronomical prices levied during the Big Freeze. 

Meantime, Dr. Krishnamoorti says the reforms to redesign how power is generated and funded will take at least until next year, and hot snaps will continue to be a challenge.