Musings: What’s a rolling blackout?

by | Feb 15, 2021 | Breaking, Musings, Opinion

Chances are if you’re reading this you may be sitting in your car, engine running and heater blasting, because the winter weather event gripping Texas has led to such overwhelming demand that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the statewide grid, was forced to begin rolling blackouts at around 2 AM Central Time this morning.

For those unsure of what rolling or rotating blackouts are, it’s a simple concept. The grid operator contacts local electric utilities and they begin cutting off power to portions of the grid, generally picking and choosing which neighborhoods go dark to help quell demand and keep essential buildings like hospitals up and running.

In theory and practice, it can be incredibly effective unless you happen to encounter problems with your state’s ability to regenerate power. In Texas, a substantial amount of that regeneration comes from wind turbines that are powerfully effective 99% of the time, but that have frozen in the subzero windchill blanketing the state.

These rotating blackouts are supposed to last 15-45 minutes before they turn the power back on for that portion of the grid and take another offline. In fact, in text messages sent across the state at 2:11 AM that read “Outages typically last 40 minutes or less. Length and frequency depend on the severity of the event. Prepare for possible power interruptions due to mandated rotating outages.”

Therein lies the biggest problem. Texans who lost power at 3 or 4 AM are in most cases still awaiting restoration, and municipal officials have begun acknowledging that they don’t have enough power available to restore service to folks impacted by the mandated outages. Compounding the problem significantly are other outages caused by high wind and the precipitation of rain, ice, and snow that has accumulated significantly.

There is good news: the energy in reserve has been steadily increasing this morning. You can track today’s energy outlook as well as real-time grid conditions by downloading the ERCOT mobile app. Capacity is likely to expand significantly in the next few hours, but as power is restored in parts of the state, demand is expected to vastly exceed supply, likely necessitating more blackouts throughout today and tomorrow.

You can help lessen the demand on the grid by lowering your home thermostat to 68 degrees or lower, closing blinds and shades to keep heat in, and stuffing towels under the cracks of doors to help keep heat trapped in those rooms. Please unplug anything that you don’t need to be using and turn off as many lights in your home as possible.

If you are impacted by a power outage, please bundle up with multiple layers. Road conditions are exceptionally dangerous, as sheets of ice have coated many Texas roadways, so please think twice before attempting to relocate. 

One important note: in the City of Austin and potentially other municipalities, the power outages are impacting services like the city website and 3-1-1. Please stay tuned to your City’s official Twitter account for important updates on local developments.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

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