Several regions of the United States are at risk of widespread power outages if extreme weather hits this winter, according to an assessment by the non-profit North American Reliability Corporation.
Texas, which generates more electricity than any other state, could see numerous power plants become inoperable with the right winter storm, causing electricity demand to exceed what’s being generated by up to 37%, the report found.
That means nearly half of the state’s electricity resources wouldn’t be able to meet customer demand, leaving millions of Texans in the dark – again.
The sobering outlook comes after record cold temperatures in February 2021 caused the state to see its highest electricity demand ever as residents tried to keep warm.
To prevent the power grid from buckling under the stress, grid operators were forced to implement rolling outages right when Texans needed power the most.
More than 200 people died during the power crisis, with the most common cause of death being hypothermia.
In pictures: Winter storms wreaking havoc in the US
A post-storm analysis released in November indicated power plants were unable to produce electricity primarily due to natural gas issues and generators freezing.
NERC, which regulates the bulk power system for all of the US (including Texas) and Canada, says the events of this past winter underscore the need to weatherize critical infrastructure.
“Extreme weather events, such as the one in February 2021, are unfortunately becoming more commonplace and the electricity ecosystem needs to come together to plan for and prepare to operate under more extreme, longer duration, and wide area weather events,” NERC President Jim Robb said.
The February outages could have been reduced by 67% in Texas just by simply weatherizing four types of power plant components, NERC’s analysis found.
Elevated risks outside Texas
Other power markets in the Central and Northern Plains could also come close to having electricity shortfalls this season under extreme conditions.
The ongoing drought in the West has left many hydropower plants suffering. And researchers predict the Northwest could have energy reserves fall as low as -1.5% during a record-breaking storm.
NERC also warns that fuel stocks on site for power plants are below normal for this time of the year. While it isn’t an issue right now, the ongoing energy crisis overseas and snarled supply chain make it one to watch.
The winter weather outlook is at least optimistic
NERC’s assessment coincides with the Climate Prediction Center’s Winter Weather Outlook.
The CPC is expecting above-average temperatures across much of the Southeast and Northeast from December through February. Temperatures across the Southwest, Southern and Central Plains, and into the Ohio River Valley and Mid-Atlantic are expected to be slightly above the norm.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies are likely to see cooler than normal temperatures.
But it’s important to remember that, though it may be a warmer-than-normal winter for much of the country, extreme cold snaps can still occur at times.
Look no farther than last winter, when the Southern Plains witnessed a record-breaking deep freeze despite the expectation of above-average temperatures. Most notably, Texas shattered numerous records and cold temperatures crippled the power grid.
Last winter saw the weather effects of a La Niña. And a forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fell in line with typical La Niña expectations: cooler and wetter weather across the northern tier of the US and drier and warmer than average temperatures across much of the southern US.
“In fact, this past December-January was the least La Niña-ish pattern of 13 moderate-to-strong La Niñas dating back to 1950. Why? Who knows! But the influence of chaotic weather variability is always there. Yes, even during a La Niña, mother nature can just BE that way sometimes,” meteorologist Tom Di Liberto wrote in March in a NOAA blog post.