Travelers Beware: Rolling Blackouts In Texas Are Affecting Fast Charging (+Safety Tips)

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Texas is getting record cold, snow, and freezing rain today, and it’s causing a lot of problems. Among them are EV charging stations that are down, including some of Tesla Superchargers and Electrify America’s CCS/CHAdeMO locations.

Acccording to Fox 4 in Dallas, wide swaths of the state are experiencing rolling blackouts due to low supply and extreme demand. Both renewable and fossil fuel power plants are experiencing problems, as well as nuclear, while customers need record levels of electricity to keep warm. Because of this, the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) ordered rolling blackouts.

The Blackouts

When demand for electricity exceeds supply, voltage drops, which could lead to everyone on the grid not having power for their appliances and heat. If that happens, everyone suffers. The idea behind rolling blackouts is to shut off parts of the grid for short times so that everybody takes a turn not having power so everyone doesn’t freeze to death. Hospitals, critical care, and first responder facilities are supposed to keep their power.

Originally, the blackouts were supposed to only last 10-45 minutes, so that nobody would get too cold during the outages. As things got worse, the outages ended up lasting hours. These problems are likely to continue through Tuesday.

Screenshot from Plugshare showing a stranded Tesla driver reporting a station outage.

EV Charging Stations Affected

I live just outside of the affected area, and experienced a lot of cold for the region surrounding El Paso, but we didn’t get hit near as hard as the rest of Texas this time. I did start getting alerts on my phone for charging stations I had set up through Plugshare.

So far, I’ve seen the stories of several travelers getting stranded in their EVs in various parts of Texas due to downed stations in places from Fort Stockton in west Texas to people traveling through the central part of the state. In some places, power was out to the whole town, but driving conditions had improved to the point where it’s possible to travel safely.

As of Monday night, Electrify America reported six stations down, effectively blocking travel on three interstate corridors. “Right now six charging stations offline – expected to be back on when utilities provide the power.”

As moisture clears and highways become safe to travel, the effects on the grid from these types of storms can continue, sometimes for days. After all, it’s the extremely unusual cold that’s causing the extreme demand and most of the generation issues.

Safety Tips

Some of the things we need to do to travel safely in EVs are the same as for gas-powered cars.

When traveling in winter, be sure to stay informed about the weather along your route. Extreme weather can strand any type of vehicle due to slippery conditions, snow drifts, and roads that become completely blocked by snow and/or wrecks. It’s always best to check with weather apps before going on a trip to make sure you’re not driving into dangerous conditions.

You’ll also want to keep some emergency supplies in your vehicle when traveling long distance in winter. Vehicles of all types can break down in the cold, leaving you without heat. Appropriate cold weather clothing, blankets, and a charged cell phone can make the difference between living and dying when stranded on the road in the cold.

Electric vehicles also have some unique considerations.

When you’re in an EV and get stuck at a charging station in severe weather, the first thing you’ll want to do is gather information. Use a search engine on your phone to figure out who the local utility is. On their webpage, you’ll probably find outage information giving you an idea of how long the outage is likely to last. If it’s not expected to last very long, you can probably just wait it out.

If the outage is going to last hours or longer you’ll need to make a plan for your safety. Try to find a level 2 charger that’s working if at all possible, as that can help you run the car’s heaters while waiting for the situation to be over.

Unlike houses and RVs, cars aren’t very well insulated and will lose their heat pretty quickly once the battery runs out. If your battery is extremely low and there’s no level 2 charging available, you’ll need to seek shelter in a hotel, truck stop, or restaurant if possible. The insides of those places are likely to be uncomfortable, but you’ll at least be able to get into an insulated place where your blankets and clothing will be more helpful.

If any of these places have a wall plug that’s working (sometimes the EV chargers will be offline but parts of the town will have power), you should ask the owners about using the plug to keep yourself warm while waiting the power outage out. Most people in small towns will help you out, but some won’t. Keep asking around or calling places to see who can help.

If you’ve got a good amount of battery left and no level 1 or 2 charging, make a strategy to conserve energy until charging becomes available again. If you have seat heaters, wrap the blankets over each passenger and let the blankets help keep you warm so you can keep the seat heaters on a lower setting. Then, turn the main heater off or to low. This should maximize the time that the vehicle’s battery can keep you alive while waiting the situation out.

Once charging becomes available, consider charging at a lower kW rate if your vehicle allows for that. This helps keep your vehicle from overloading the local grid and causing the next blackout from coming again. If you’re unsure about this, contact the local grid operator and ask them about the outage, and whether charging will cause severe problems. They may have alternate solutions, like slow charging or help finding shelter, in lieu of charging.

Finally, if you’re thinking you are in real danger due to cold weather and a charging station that’s down, be proactive about calling 911. Public safety personnel will know where to find shelter, and may have designated shelters locally with heat. Also, keep in mind that emergency personnel are probably swamped with calls in those situations. Calling early instead of when you’re on your last leg gives them more time to help you out.

Featured image: Screenshot from Oncor power outage map, showing widespread outages.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1987 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba