In the second week of February 2021 much of Texas experienced a prolonged period of temperatures below freezing that neither inhabitants nor infrastructure were adequately prepared for. A series of winter storm events across the U.S. led to widespread catastrophic freeze impacts, and Texas was particularly hard hit. Much of the state experienced unusually heavy snowfall and temperatures plunged and stayed low for six days.
The storm downed power lines, but the cold led natural gas plants to shut down, wind turbines in the northern Panhandle to lock up, and a nuclear power plant to go offline. Freezing temperatures on February 14 caused a spike in demand just as power production was dwindling because of them, resulting in consumers losing power just when they needed it most. An uncontrolled blackout of the entire grid, which could have taken weeks to fully recover from, was only narrowly avoided. More than 4.3 million outages were reported at the peak. On February 15, the average temperature across Texas was just 12°F, or 6° lower than the average in Alaska the same day. Wind chills in the Dallas region reached as low as -15°F, and with a low of 13°F Austin was colder than it had been since 1899.
This was not the first time Texas experienced frigid temperatures and prolonged hard freezes, and it won’t be the last. Another cold plunge earlier this month provided an opportunity to see how Texas had responded to the previous year’s event in terms of its resilience.
The winter storm in 2022 struck late on Wednesday, February 2, and left much of the state experiencing freezing rain, sleet, ice, and dangerous wind chills for several days. As a result, the demand for power spiked, but this time the state’s grid did not fail. Some power lines were brought down by falling trees and ice accumulation, and by Thursday morning there were about 70,000 power outages reported around the state as a result. But resources and personnel had been deployed ahead of the storm to deal with them expeditiously.
More importantly, even though the demand for power peaked on the Friday morning, the grid remained stable and there were no widespread blackouts. In 2021 demand for power had peaked at about 69,000 megawatts when the grid crashed, and in 2022 peak demand also reportedly reached 69,000 megawatts—less than the 74,000 megawatts officials at the state’s provider ERCOT had predicted and prepared for.
There were several reasons why the freeze of 2022 was not a repeat of the previous year. The storm proved to be a typical Texas cold front, for one, and power plants running on natural gas did not experience a reduced supply. And following the bad experience in 2021 improvements had been made both to the grid’s capacity and resilience. The state started the cold snap with a “larger cushion of power” than had been available in 2021 and at the peak of the storm 86,000 megawatts, more than the peak demand, was reportedly available. In the year following the catastrophic 2021 freeze Texas added more than 8,000 megawatts capacity to its grid, 42% of it from wind power and 40% from solar as ERCOT seeks to reduce its reliance on a single fuel.
State legislation aimed at preventing future blackouts will also take time to bear fruit. The legislation will require power companies to create a statewide emergency alert system and to weatherize their power plants; oil and gas plants will have to be weatherized by 2023. This time the freeze was not as severe as it was a year ago; the Texas grid was not challenged to the same degree, but thanks to measures taken to improve its resilience it was also in a better position to meet the challenge.