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Texas governor says ‘no one can guarantee’ there won’t be power outages in winter storm

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) holds a news conference about severe winter weather along with representatives from the Texas Division of Emergency Management on Feb. 1 in Austin. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/AP)
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said “no one can guarantee” there won’t be power outages in the state during a winter storm expected to hit a wide swath of the nation starting Wednesday, despite his promise months ago to the millions affected by last year’s freeze that the lights would stay on this year.

Frigid weather is expected to hit the state in what is likely to be the first significant test of the Texas power grid a year after a historic freeze killed hundreds of residents and left millions without power for days. The National Weather Service says the state could see freezing rain and cold conditions, as well as sleet and snow, as early as Wednesday afternoon in Central Texas.

Although Abbott said in November that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on” in the state the next time severe winter weather rolled through, the governor cautioned Tuesday that he could not promise that “load shed” events would not unfold this week. A load shed occurs when electricity demand above available supply results in rolling blackouts to keep the state power grid from collapsing. Load-shedding happened on a large scale in the state last year.

Texas's independent power grid was crippled under high demand and damaging weather after a historic cold snap hit the U.S. over Presidents' Day weekend in 2021. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

“No one can guarantee that there won’t be a load-shed event,” Abbott said at a news conference in Austin. “But what we will work and strive to achieve — and what we’re prepared to achieve — is that the power’s going to stay on across the entire state.”

The governor said that blackouts could result from several scenarios, such as “ice on power lines” or “ice on trees that causes a tree to fall on power lines.”

Abbott and state leaders said that the power grid was nonetheless in good shape to take on the storm. The governor said the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s main power grid, was “well-prepared” to meet power needs. The state grid reported last month that all of the electric generation units and transmission facilities have met new standards set after the freeze in February 2021.

“We are ready for this storm,” the Brad Jones, interim chief executive of ERCOT, told reporters. “We will be prepared for this.”

But with another serious storm bearing down on the state, critics, including Democrats, were quick to accuse Abbott of going back on his promise to keep the lights. on Among those critics is former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is running for governor this year. O’Rourke told MSNBC on Tuesday night that the Republican has not done enough since last year’s freeze to safeguard the state in the event of similar conditions.

“The fact is the governor was warned for years before 2021 when this storm happened that we had vulnerabilities in the grid and did nothing,” the Democrat told host Chris Hayes.

Nan Tolson, a spokeswoman for Abbott, told The Washington Post that the governor noted that enhanced measures in place for the power grid would prevent mass blackouts.

“In answering the question, the Governor was referring to a tool in ERCOT’s toolbox to reduce the demand for electricity so that there will not be any blackouts,” Tolson said in a statement. “This is a tool that has larger industrial electricity users who choose to participate in the program reduce their demand for electricity and has no impact on commercial or residential customers.”

Texas is among more than a dozen states preparing for large amounts of snow and ice in a winter storm stretching from the border with Mexico to Canada this week. Nearly 80 million Americans are under winter storm watches or warnings through Thursday. The worst conditions are anticipated Wednesday and Thursday in major cities such as Indianapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Dallas.

Major winter storm: Heavy snow, paralyzing ice forecast for Midwest, part of South

There is a chance that the alerts could be expanded into the Northeast and interior Mid-Atlantic as the system shifts east by Friday. The National Weather Service has already warned Americans to expect “prolonged hazardous winter weather conditions and disrupted travel.”

The storm is expected to hit the Austin area late Wednesday and into early Thursday. Forecasts show that temperatures will be in the 20s for most of Thursday with a threat of ice accumulation.

While this week’s storm is not expected to be a repeat of the deadly freeze of 2021, the warnings are bringing back memories of what the state went through last February when freezing weather crippled Texas. At least 246 people died in what was one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history, according to a Dec. 31 report from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Nearly two-thirds of the deaths attributed to the storm were due to hypothermia, data shows.

Abbott — who initially blamed wind turbines that had frozen in the extreme cold for the power grid’s failure before acknowledging that they played no role — called for ERCOT to be overhauled after the storm. The power outages and equipment failures raised questions about whether the state’s natural gas system, the main source for power and heat generation, was able to perform in the cold.

After Abbott said he had signed new laws to ensure the strength of the power grid, he told KTBC that the state would not face similar trouble this winter.

“I can guarantee the lights will stay on,” he said in November. Those sentiments were echoed at a December news conference by Peter Lake, who chairs the Public Utility Commission of Texas: “The lights are going to stay on this winter.”

To address some of the issues, ERCOT said last month that 321 of 324 electricity generating units and transmission facilities had fully passed inspection to meet new regulations that make the power generators better equipped for winter weather. Those ERCOT generators account for 85 percent of the state’s total power supply, KXAN reported. Jones told The Post in January that the state was “more prepared for winter operations than ever before.”

But even after the storm, Texas lawmakers did not require natural gas companies to prepare their equipment for the extreme cold ahead of this winter. Some have cautioned that although the electrical grid is better equipped for winter storms, the natural gas side of Texas’s energy system could freeze in extreme conditions — and potentially strain the entire system.

“It’s like fixing your car but the tank is empty,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Post last month.

When he was asked about how the state’s natural gas supply could be affected by this week’s weather, Abbott acknowledged that “there might be some reduction in the generation of natural gas.”

“We can still maintain power grid integrity even if there is a loss of some level of production of natural gas,” the governor told reporters, adding that Texas gas producers had “taken steps to ensure that we’re going to have the natural gas that we need.”

ERCOT is expecting the peak power demand this week to be comparable to the demand during last year’s storm. The demand for power in the state is expected to hit a high of around 73 gigawatts Friday, according to an ERCOT projection obtained by KXAS. The statewide power demand during the 2021 storm topped out at 77 gigawatts.

Texans are split on whether the state’s power grind can withstand another freeze. A new poll from the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that 46 percent of registered voters are confident the state can avoid mass outages, while 47 percent said they are not confident.

Although Abbott emphasized that Texas was “working around the clock to respond to the winter storm expected to impact our state over the next few days,” critics maintained that the governor had gone back on a very public promise made about potential power outages in freezing weather. The Lincoln Project, the effort led by former Republicans against former president Donald Trump, posted an anti-Abbott video Wednesday with a familiar title: “Winter Is Coming.”

“.@GregAbbott_TX fiddles as Texas freezes,” the group tweeted.

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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