As thousands of Highland Lakes residents and millions of Texans deal with power outages in extreme winter weather, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials say the power grid manager is working to safely restore electricity to those affected and protect the integrity of the grid.
“The number one priority, what we are focused on above all else literally 24 hours a day since this event began, is getting customers their service back,” said Bill Magness, president and CEO of ERCOT, during a Tuesday, Feb. 16, media briefing.
ERCOT, which was created in 1970, manages the state power grid that serves about 26 million Texas customers. Within its system, it connects more than 46,500 miles of transmission lines and over 680 generating plants.
On Sunday, Feb. 14, ERCOT officials issued an Energy Emergency Alert 3 in response to the winter storm and stress it caused on the supply and demand of the power grid. Under this alert, ERCOT directed electric providers such as Pedernales Electric Cooperative and Central Texas Electric Cooperative to implement extreme conservation measures.
This included “rolling blackouts,” or interrupting power service to customers.
However, ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin said how those rolling blackouts are carried out is up to the local providers. ERCOT bases the amount of power each local electric supplier must reduce its use by on the size of the provider.
This is to make it equitable, he explained.
Locations that are disconnected are left up to the provider.
Magness added that once ERCOT determines the percentage providers need to reduce their consumption, “it’s up to them how to determine outages.”
PEC began initiating customer interruptions shortly after ERCOT released the emergency alert.
“Like other electric utilities across the state, PEC is complying with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ directive to implement service interruptions to ensure stability across the entire statewide grid,” according to a media release from PEC Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Viesca.
When it does interrupt service, PEC “rotates” the blackouts on a different set of feeders, which “ensures the same amount of load is interrupted each time, therefore keeping the same decreased demand on the system.”
However, along with the rolling blackouts, providers such as PEC and CTEC have faced additional challenges due to the winter storm’s damage to infrastructure.
CTEC officials reported that, along with ice and extreme cold damaging transformers, more than 250 power poles have been knocked down. By Monday, Feb. 15, CTEC had received about 200 replacement poles.
Along with the damage to infrastructure, which has led to longer blackouts for some PEC and CTEC customers, repair crews have been dealing with the bitter cold weather and hazardous driving conditions.
“These temperatures have created hazardous road conditions, particularly at night, that prevent PEC crews from restoring infrastructure power outages until conditions improve,” according to Viesca’s release. “PEC lineworkers and other PEC employees have been working diligently around-the-clock to safely make restorations as quickly as possible.”
The extremely cold temperatures created a huge demand for electricity, which was one of the contributing factors to the statewide issue that ERCOT officials discussed.
The weather was also a driving factor on the supply side.
Magness said that as the demand for power jumped Sunday to historic numbers for the winter months, ERCOT saw a large drop in supply.
The supply drop came as many power-generating plants went offline due to weather-related conditions. Those plants include solar, wind, natural gas, coal, and even nuclear.
Woodfin said the state power grid had lost over 45,000 megawatts of generation at that point.
About 16,000 was attributed to renewable sources such as wind and solar going offline, and almost another 30,000 megawatts of loss capability was attributed to thermal sources, including natural gas, coal, and nuclear production.
“It’s really a variety of resources that are out,” Woodfin said Tuesday.
By Wednesday, Feb. 17, ERCOT updated the figures. Approximately 46,000 megawatts were offline consisting of 18,000 from wind and solar and 28,000 from thermal sources.
It wasn’t just due to wind turbines in West Texas freezing up, officials said.
“There’s significantly more megawatts in the thermal category than renewables,” Woodfin said referring to how much generation was offline.
Magness said those power generation losses came about the same time severe weather swept across the state, triggering a huge demand. This put the grid supply-demand out of balance, something if left uncheck could lead to a catastrophic failure.
“What we have seen in this event, this severe winter event, is that imbalance of supply and demand developing to the point Sunday night where we needed to protect the integrity of the grid,” Magness said. “We need to make sure we didn’t have an uncontrolled blackout that could last for an undetermined amount of time.”
Woodfin and Magness said that as temperatures begin to warm, even around freezing, more generating plants could return to production and ease the burden on the grid.
In recent days, Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders have demanded a review of ERCOT’s handling of the winter storm and power outages. Magness and Woodfin said they and other ERCOT officials will review what happened and look for ways to prevent this from occurring again.
“Our focus at this point has been to keep the system together,” Woodfin said.