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The nation's electrical grids were tested over the last week. Did they pass?


The winter storm last week brought record cold temperatures to much of the United States.


DAVID MUIR: A brutal blast of life-threatening cold from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Look at this Arctic surge moving.

BRITLEY RITZ: Forty-three degrees to 10 degrees within just 10 minutes.

LAWRENCE KARNOW: Even Atlanta feels like -5 degrees.

MARTÍNEZ: And that meant record pressure on the electric grid as heaters across the country kicked in to help keep people warm. But despite some strain on the grid, the nation's energy system did not collapse. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us to discuss. So how big of a challenge was this for the electric grid?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: It was pretty significant. And to be clear, what we're talking about here isn't individual poles going down in a storm. That really is significant to the people in the neighborhood who are affected. But the risk with this kind of situation is actually about supplying an entire region - huge parts of the country - just based on how much demand there is at one time. It got really cold in this storm, and the area that was affected was huge. There were records set for electricity demand in the Southwest, in Texas, in Tennessee. In Texas, they underestimated how much power there would be, which is a really dangerous situation for a grid. And cold weather also affects power production. So this was a real test.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so a lot of strain. How did the grid do?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it didn't give out. You have to remember, there are a bunch of different grids in what we call our grid. Some of them struggled and some of them did better than others. I spoke with Morris Greenberg. He's an analyst with S&P 500 who's been tracking the power sector for more than 25 years. I asked him what grade he would give utilities overall.

MORRIS GREENBERG: Given how broad or large the system was and how low the temperatures got, I would think, you know, a B would be a reasonable grade for this.

DOMONOSKE: There were some outages, some rolling blackouts from systems that couldn't supply enough power - so not A-plus work. But certainly, you know, he says it could be a lot worse. And we all remember what happened in Texas in 2021. That's what a lot worse can look like.

MARTÍNEZ: Yes, we do remember that. So, OK, then why weren't things worse? I mean, was it luck or just preparation?

DOMONOSKE: A little bit of both. On the preparation side, there has been winterization, making sure that power plants can keep running when it gets really cold. Things like that happened, particularly in Texas. On the luck side, there were a lot of things. This happened right before a holiday weekend. That means demand is on the lower side anyway. It happened early in the winter. That terrible storm in Texas that the grid nearly collapsed - that was in February. Right now, there's still a lot of natural gas in storage because it's early in the season.

It's also important that the super cold temperatures sort of moved across the country. So early on, extra power from out East could be sent West. Later on, extra power from the West could be sent East to manage the really intense moments. And there was one more bit of luck that came from the storm itself.

GREENBERG: This system was accompanied by pretty strong winds, which meant that wind chill temperatures were lower. But it also meant that, in general, wind generation was higher.

DOMONOSKE: So more wind power - that wind might not have felt lucky if you were standing in it, but it did help keep the lights on.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, I guess we can't count on that with every cold snap, though. What do you think, though, this means for the crystal ball for the electric grid?

DOMONOSKE: I mean, it means that conversations about grid reliability are not going away, especially because, you know, I mentioned all these areas that set new records for demand in the winter. Well, demand is just going to keep going up, especially as the fight against climate change kicks in. People are going to switch to electric vehicles, electric stoves, electric home-heating systems. That means less carbon dioxide, but it also means more pressure on the electric grid, including in storms like this, demand switching from natural gas and oil to electricity to run a lot of heat pumps in the winter. So as areas look at future demand going up and up, you know, utilities need to plan ahead and be prepared for extra demand coming in the seasons to come.

MARTÍNEZ: And what about the rest of the energy system?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, we're talking a lot about electricity here, but this storm put pressure on other systems, too. I mentioned there are decent supplies of natural gas right now, at least in the parts of the country that were the coldest in the storm. There's plenty of propane, too. Some refineries on the coast - on the Gulf Coast - did have to shut down, which has put pressure on supplies of crude oil and gasoline. That's nudging gasoline prices up. But they have been dropping for weeks, so drivers aren't currently feeling too much of a pinch there either.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks a lot.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.


A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.