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Energy experts worry Texas could face another winter blackout

For business

Slow progress on weatherization

One of the main concerns for Texas energy experts is weatherization. In February 2021, freezing temperatures knocked out power plants, transmission lines, and natural gas wells. These structures weren’t built to withstand the cold.

In a report released in December, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) noted that most power generators are ready for winter operations. The survey found over 70 percent of generators were ready for winter after taking steps to weatherize their equipment. Most of the generators not yet ready asked for extensions of a few weeks to the December 1st deadline.

But, observers say power generation is only part of the challenge. The Texas electricity grid relies on natural gas to generate energy. But getting natural gas producers to weatherize their facilities is a slow process.

The Texas Railroad Commission regulates the natural gas sector. According to the Commission’s timetable, officials will complete mapping the state’s natural gas sites by September 2022. Only then will weatherization rules be finalized.

Virginia Palacios believes this timetable exposes the Texas energy grid to considerable risk. Palacios is executive director of Commission Shift, an organization that documents the links between the Railroad Commission and the gas sector. “We are not going to have any assurances that operators are weatherizing for this winter,” she states. “And probably not for the next one.”

Natural gas sites now critical infrastructure

One area where progress has occurred is the registration of natural gas sites as critical infrastructure. According to the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA), 60 of Texas’ approximately 250,000 natural gas wells were registered as critical infrastructure sites during the 2021 storm. As a result, many natural gas producers lost electricity when energy providers had to cut power to businesses to preserve the grid. In turn, gas-driven power plants experienced shortages, which deepened the energy crisis.

ERCOT reported more than half of Texas’ natural gas supply shut down at the worst point of the storm last February. About 20 percent of these shutdowns were caused by power plants not receiving enough natural gas to operate. More than 4.5 million customers lost power for several days. Some customers on variable electricity rates saw their bills skyrocket.

In December, the TXOGA said that over 1,000 facilities are registered as critical infrastructure. It says this will prevent power from being shut off to natural gas producers during a future energy crisis.

Some regulators remain worried despite the reassurances from industry bodies like the TXOGA. Rich Glick, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, notes that Texas failed to act on warnings before February 2021. The most serious of these warnings came in winter 2011 when the Lone Star State experienced blackouts.

The FERC issued a 2011 report with recommendations for tighter regulations, including weatherization measures. However, regulators in Texas have complete control over the state’s power grid. The FERC has no jurisdiction to enforce its recommendations. 

Glick comments, “And somehow, after the report was issued, nothing happened. And so this time I think we need to learn from that experience and say, no, we can’t just rely on voluntary…and assume that these generating facilities are going to winterize on their own. We need to require that.”

 

What will this mean for me?

These discussions will directly impact Texas electricity customers. The next few months will show if the changes made by regulators so far are adequate to prevent a repeat of February 2021. 

The debate over protecting the power grid could also have longer-term consequences. Bringing in tougher regulations could impact how energy consumers buy and use their electricity for years to come. For example, stricter winterization standards could push up fixed electricity rates.

 And, if warnings made by some energy experts prove correct, Texas residents could face further energy disruption if extreme weather strikes again. 

Jordan Smith is a writer and researcher with expertise in renewable energy and deregulated energy markets. Jordan has written extensively on the deregulated energy market in Texas and the challenges confronted in the clean energy transition, and conducted research projects within the energy industry. Further articles by Jordan can be found at SaveOnEnergy.com.