Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utility Commission (PUC), and Brad Jones, acting president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), convened on Wednesday to temper anxiety about a repeat of those issues some, especially those in the media, have fretted about.
“Because of all these efforts, the lights will stay on this winter,” Lake told members of the press. “Texans should know that they have the best grid they’ve ever had.”
While the state has yet to approve its final direction for tweaks of the market, its more tangible efforts include a commission to coordinate emergency response and a weatherization mandate for all power plants. The state lost about 45,000 megawatts (MW) of installed generation capacity during the storm, much of which was natural gas generation, due to a variety of cold weather-related issues.
The Texas legislature mandated that power plants protect their infrastructure against cold weather as low as zero degrees. In practice, this generally takes one of three forms: 1) building larger enclosures around control units or other pieces of larger infrastructure; 2) using smaller enclosures, the size of Yeti coolers, called “O’Brien boxes” to protect smaller units from freezing; and 3) installing heat tracing elements to the fluid transfer system so that temperature inside the pipes can be tracked and moderated.
And where the raw capacity of outages featured natural gas more, the grid’s renewable generation capacity nearly disappeared entirely. During the blackouts, natural gas electricity generation outperformed its share of the grid’s overall installed capacity.
Texas, with its warm climate, is not used to severe cold snaps and thus was not prepared for the likes of the storm that hit back in February. Not only was the temperature roughly 10 degrees colder throughout the state than the 2011 event, but it stayed lower for much longer.
This prolonged and heightened the stress on the power grid and all infrastructure across the supply chain. Texas hadn’t experienced a winter storm such that encompassed so much of the state in nearly a century.
Going into this winter, the PUC has required all power plants to be weatherized by December 29 and weatherization plans were due at the beginning of this month — 97 percent of which were turned in on time, according to Lake. Shortly after the press conference, the PUC announced it filed violations against eight companies for failing to file those reports for 13 sites on time.
Those 13 facilities account for less than 1 percent of the state’s 120,000 MW installed capacity.
ERCOT, Jones said, has already begun inspecting over 300 plants which collectively account for 85 percent of the lost generation from February.
Another issue that compounded the cold weather problems was the forced blackouts cutting off from power operations pivotal to producing natural gas used to generate electricity and driving it to the generators. This issue was fixed by rules requiring critical infrastructure to be designated as such, thus preventing the same issue from being repeated. Both the Railroad Commission and PUC adopted critical infrastructure designation rules.
On the natural gas side, 80 percent of the production fleet cannot be exempted from this designation and only small producers may apply for an exemption, but are not guaranteed to receive one.
During the press conference, one reporter stated emphatically that “natural gas froze in the pipelines,” asking how the two state officials intended to prevent that from happening again.
But this claim is simply not true, according to the Texas Pipeline Association. Natural gas freezes at negative 297 degrees Fahrenheit — temperatures during the storm barely dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Additionally, the transport pipelines themselves are buried beneath the surface, further insulated from cold weather.
However, above ground connecting pipes, which move the gas from the mainline to the processing or generating plant, may have run into cold weather problems.
But still, physics is physics and despite the abnormally severe cold snap, Texas fell 295 degrees short of its normally prolific natural gas supply from freezing.
Generators have also since invested more heavily in natural gas storage supplies to have a break-in-case-of-emergency supply a short distance from their facilities rather than relying solely on the hundreds of miles-long supply chain in a pinch.
But that is something the companies have taken upon themselves. Despite what some would like to believe, there is no financial incentive for these generators to fall out of commission during a time of high demand. Texas has an energy-only wholesale electricity market and so, generators get paid only when they provide electricity. There is no up-front negotiation of a certain amount of generation for a certain price.
Those high demand periods, like during the storm, are when many of these generators make much of their money. Which brings up another reform made by the state.
ERCOT added 15 percent generation capacity for this winter. It did this by bringing “peaker plants” — generators that typically only operate during the heat of summer — into the winter fold.
Peaker plants make their money on premium scarcity pricing of electricity, many are qualified as ancillary services which can reach prices far higher than the wholesale cap currently at $9,000 per MWh. That cap, itself, will be reduced by a PUC rule change going forward.
One more issue that has not gained much clarity is the role poor road conditions played in exacerbating the natural gas supply and electricity generation hiccups. The icy roads prevented feedwater supply necessary to the generation process for power plants, including the South Texas nuclear plant, from being delivered.
A similar problem occurred at some wellheads in the Permian Basin and elsewhere in Texas when trucks could not reach those sites in order to haul off the mix of water and chemical runoff that is a part of the solution pulled from the ground that is then separated out into components such as natural gas.
Hydraulic fracturing, colloquially called “fracking,” involves pumping in a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into wells, vertical and horizontal, in order to separate the underground rock formations enough to extract the sedentary oil and gases within.
Because Texas does not experience cold snaps often, it does not have the system built to salt and clear roads as efficiently as northern states do. Texas’ geographic expanse just adds to that difficulty, too.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told The Texan that throughout the state, the agency “had no reports of any TxDOT roads leading to utilities being impassable.” The agency oversees all federal interstates, U.S. and state highways, most county roads, and farm to market and ranch roads.
But cities oversee roads within their jurisdiction and some county roads fall within the purview of the county government.
Some wellheads also feature private roads leading to them. Who was responsible for which road varies from case to case, but the fact remains that some were impassable which exacerbated the issues. And it could have been avoided by those entities responsible for the road upkeep.
Governor Greg Abbott has promised a number of times that the lights will stay on this winter, and Lake’s reiteration continues the state’s effort to assuage concerns — both genuine and politically motivated.
Meanwhile, Democrats, led by Beto O’Rourke, have placed the power grid atop their messaging list, warning of another calamity to come because “Republicans didn’t fix the grid.”
Even if the power grid hasn’t been sufficiently fixed, betting on another 100-year storm one year later is a less than favorable wager.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.