Millions of Texans woke to wickedly cold air on Tuesday, hoping that the state’s power grid, which failed spectacularly during a deep freeze in 2021, would hold up this time.
The early hours of the day were expected to pose a crucial test for the power supply. Wind chills fell below zero in cities like Austin, Dallas and San Antonio as many businesses were reopening after the long holiday weekend for Martin Luther King’s Birthday.
The operator of the state’s grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, asked Texans to limit energy use between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Tuesday. As of 7:30 a.m. in Texas, the grid appeared to be handling demand, and only about 32,000 of the state’s more than 13 million customers were without service, according to Poweroutage.us, which track utilities.
The council had said that its call for conservation “does not indicate ERCOT is experiencing emergency conditions at this time,” adding that the request was a “widely used industry tool that can help lower demand for a specific period of peak demand time.”
Brutal winter weather in February 2021 caused Texas’ electricity grid to fail, with millions of people losing power for days. The failure contributed to the deaths of more than 240 people.
Officials in Texas have taken steps to prevent such critical infrastructure from failing again when demand increases during the cold. Since 2021, the state has expanded the amount of solar power on the grid, in addition to large amounts of wind energy.
Even as officials project confidence in the bolstered electrical grid, ERCOT is not ruling out the possibility of rolling blackouts, in which electricity is shut off to certain areas at a time and then restored. This emergency measure is meant to avoid demand overwhelming the grid and leading to widespread, prolonged outages.
Winter mornings are particularly taxing on the grid. Temperatures are near their lowest; the wind, driving the electrical turbines, is often quiet; and the sun, powering the solar panels, is not strong enough.
Several Texas mayors implored residents to take precautions in the extreme cold. In Austin, warming shelters were slated to remain in operation through Tuesday morning after housing 400 people overnight, many of them vulnerable homeless people at risk of hypothermia.
“It is very, very cold,” Mayor Kirk Watson of Austin said on Monday.
Classes were canceled for Tuesday in some populous school districts and on some big college campuses, such as Texas A&M, which could reduce expected electricity demand.
Highways in Dallas were clear before sunrise Tuesday, despite worries from officials there that wet roads could refreeze. Some water-main breaks were reported in Dallas and Fort Worth, and the region’s two largest school districts announced closings on Tuesday because of the potential for ice on the streets and dangerous temperatures for children waiting for the bus. Many other school districts were open.
At 6 a.m., the temperature at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport was 13 degrees, with a windchill reading of minus 5.
So far, the Texas power grid has withstood the latest deep freeze. ERCOT said there were no power disruptions on Monday morning, when electricity use surpassed a previous record of peak winter demand that was set during the cold snap of December 2022. But Tuesday’s strain could be greater.
A forecast by ERCOT estimated that if temperatures in January fell as low as they did in December 2022, there would be about a 1-in-6 chance of rolling blackouts occurring around 8 a.m.
While a lot of attention is focused on Texas, it is far from the only place hoping that crucial utility infrastructure doesn’t fail under the strain of the cold weather.
In 2021, while millions of Texans found themselves without electricity, many people in the Mississippi capital, Jackson, were without water for weeks. And on Christmas in 2022, tens of thousand of people in Jackson did not have running water because the system’s pipes could not withstand the subfreezing temperatures.
One of Jackson’s water plants was built in 1914 and some of the city’s water issues stem from the age the city’s infrastructure. As freezing temperatures become more frequent in the South, infrastructure that wasn’t built for such cold has been vulnerable.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements in facilities that were never built for cold weather,” said Ted Henifin, the interim manager of the city’s drinking water system. “We’re feeling good about where we are.”
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas, and Mary Beth Gahan contributed from Dallas.