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The Texas Grid Is Bracing for Another Freeze

Temperatures aren’t supposed to get nearly as low as winter 2021. The doesn’t mean folks aren’t worried.

Power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Winter has begun to arrive in Texas. In the panhandle, temperatures are expected to get as low as 22 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, while the National Weather Service forecast office in Amarillo told residents to brace themselves for Tuesday, when “temperatures will plummet to some 20 to 30 degrees below normal.” The more populous parts of the state can expect more cold weather later this week and next; in Austin, lows could dip below freezing by Sunday and into next week, while in Dallas, the thermometer could reach down to 25 this weekend. Austin could have ice, possibly leading to snarled traffic and the occasional downed power line thanks to a gliding car.

None of this is any match for Winter Storm Uri, which paralyzed the state in February 2021, causing a multi-day blackout that killed more than 200 people. But any winter cold stretch in Texas will bring up questions about how the state’s unique electricity system will handle it. “It’s deep in the Texas psyche now, and anytime it gets really hot or really cold the grid is front of mind,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist at the University of Texas.

The vast majority of Texas is on its own electric grid, and the state’s electricity market for businesses and households is far less regulated than anywhere else in the country — Texas households have more options about where they can purchase electricity from, for instance, and the offerings tend to be less standardized.While Texas does typically have low electricity prices, the system can also lead to massive spikes in what households pay. After Uri, when some customers who did still have power faced charges in the five figures, utilities regulators capped prices at $5,000 per megawatt hour.

As in much of the South, Texan households are more like to use electricity to heat their homes, which makes a blackout during a prolonged cold snap extra deadly. The failures during Uri triggered a slew of reports and investigations into what happened and who profited from it. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found a lack of weatherization across the board, but especially in the natural gas system, which was behind 87% of all generation outages, some due to distribution failures and others due to power production issues. There were wind outages, as well, thanks to iced turbine blades.

“ERCOT” — the Texas electricity authority — “says they’re ready, but they say they’re ready all the time,” said Ed Hirs, an energy economist and lecturer at the University of Houston. “There’s a credibility issue.”

There has been substantial winterization across the entire system since Uri, Rhodes said. Considering the expected lows will be around 12 degrees higher this week than they were during Uri, Rhodes added, “if any power trips offline for temperature issues, then that would worry me because that means we haven’t done our jobs.”

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Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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Sparks

Coal’s Slowdown Is Slowing Down

Rising electricity demand puts reliability back on the table.

Pollution.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The United States has been able to drive its greenhouse gas emissions to their lowest level since the early 1990s largely by reducing the amount of energy on the grid generated by coal to a vast extent. In 2005, by far the predominant source of U.S. electricity, making up some 2.2 million gigawatt-hours of the country’s 4.3 million GWh total energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. In 2022, by contrast, coal generation was down to 900,000 GWh out of 4.5 million GWh generated. As a result, “U.S. emissions are 15.8% lower than 2005 levels, while power emissions are 40% lower than 2005 levels,” according to BloombergNEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

But the steady retirement of coal plants may be slowing down. Only 2.3 GW of coal generating capacity are set to be shut down so far in 2024, according to the Energy Information Administration. While in 2025, that number is expect to jump up to 10.9 GW, the combined 13.2 GW of retired capacity pales in comparison of the more than 22 GW retired in the past two years, according to EIA figures. Over the past decade, coal retirements have averaged about 10 GW a year, with actual retirements often outpacing forecasts.

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Electric car charging.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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A chicken from the future, to be clear.

Future Chicken.
Heatmap Illustration/CBC, Getty Images

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