Texas’s Power Grid Works Great Unless It’s Too Hot or Too Cold

Amid a surge of generator outages and high summer demand straining the grid, Texans are being asked to limit their power consumption.
June 16, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: Getty Images.

After February’s catastrophic statewide outages and a promise from Gov. Greg Abbott that the state’s power grid problems would be fixed, Texans are yet again being told to limit their energy use.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) asked residents Monday to lower their electricity consumption through the end of this week to avoid shorting the state’s grid. This is the second time this year that ERCOT has made this request; the first, in February, came as blackouts due to freezing temperatures left more than 4 million people without power; 700 people died as a result of the blizzard, according to a Buzzfeed News investigation.

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According to the power authority, the state has seen 11,000 megawatts (MW) of energy–enough to power around 2.2-million homes, according to ERCOT’s own estimates–go offline for repairs so far this week. According to outage aggregator poweroutage.us, nearly 7,500 Texans were without power as of 2 p.m. on Tuesday.

"We will be conducting a thorough analysis with generation owners to determine why so many units are out of service," said ERCOT Vice President of Grid Planning and Operations Woody Rickerson in a statement on Monday. "This is unusual for this early in the summer season.

In May, the operator said the risk of emergency grid conditions this summer was “low,” even as it prepared for record heat, noting that it had enough power to meet a peak demand of 77,000 MW. Yesterday’s peak demand was expected to be just over 73,000 MW.

To reduce demand on the energy grid, ERCOT is asking residents to turn off their lights, postpone laundry loads and raise their thermostats to 78 degrees fahrenheit or higher. Texans are pissed. The state is experiencing a heat wave, with temperatures in the 90s throughout the week; but residents are skeptical that this is out of the ordinary for this time of year. Annual records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show June highs in the 90s almost every year for the last 20 years, an indication that the state’s energy system is apparently now ill-equipped to handle typical summer weather if heat is to blame for the outages.

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“Texas gets hot in the summer. It gets hot every summer. That’s how Texas works,” 39-year-old Shannon MonDragon, a Fort Worth resident who’s lived in the state for roughly a decade, told Motherboard. “They should have had their grid sorted out years ago. They've had several months since everything froze and broke down in February.” 

MonDragon is among many who expressed skepticism over the energy conservation requests on social media Monday. A number of memes expressing dissatisfaction with the operator and its guidance to turn down air conditioning have since circulated on Twitter and Reddit. 

“So what they’re saying is ERCOT in Texas can’t handle any cold or heat,” one user tweeted. Another meme, following a newly popular format featuring a still from Star Wars, expressed similar sentiment, and has since gone viral after being shared from multiple accounts. 

Widespread power outages during sweltering conditions would leave ERCOT’s 26-million customers–particularly elderly, low-income and unhoused and socially isolated individuals–vulnerable. Heat waves are the deadliest form of natural disaster in the US, eclipsing tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and cold snaps in fatalities each year. In Texas, more than 100 people have died of heat-related causes inside their homes over the last decade, a GateHouse Texas investigation found. Many were rationing their energy use to avoid high bills and shut-offs.

Critics argue that ERCOT's approach wrongfully puts the onus on consumers to address grid failures while letting larger energy users, like oil and gas producers and high-rise commercial buildings, off the hook. Residences make up less than 13 percent of the state’s overall energy use, according to 2018 data, while commercial and industrial efforts together comprise around two-thirds of it. 

MonDragon said that she’s striving to follow ERCOT’s guidance to the best of her ability, but after February’s blackouts shut off her own power for 40 hours, she’s frustrated to see outages grip the state again.

“My main concern is for the people that I know that rely on things like oxygen in their homes or are going to dialysis clinics,” she said. “If the power goes out, they can't run those things.” 

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Brian Chapin, 46-year-old Frisco resident, says he’s feeling “whiplash” seeing  ERCOT’s notice so soon after February’s grid failures. 

“I stopped counting after north of 40 power interruptions,” Chapin says of the winter blackouts. “It meant food spoiling, it meant temperatures inside the house dropping. Here we are on the flip side … It’s immensely frustrating.” 

The generator outages come less than a week after Gov. Abbott signed into law two bills reforming the state’s energy system: One requiring power plants to weatherize against extreme conditions and another overhauling the ERCOT board of directors to give state politicians greater oversight following complaints that a third of the grid operator’s board lived out of state at the time of February’s blackouts. 

“During the winter storm, too many Texans were left without heat or power for days on end,” Abbott said in a June 8 press release. “We promised not to leave session until we fixed these problems, and I am proud to say that we kept that promise.” 

ERCOT representatives did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.