AUSTIN, Texas — Despite three separate reports all stating Texas' power grid will likely fail again if the state endures another extreme winter weather event like Winter Storm Uri last February, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday doubled down on his confidence that will not be the case.
Last week, the North America Electric Reliability Corporation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and ERCOT each released their own report revealing the power grid will be able to withstand normal winter conditions, but not another severe winter storm on par with the storm that knocked out power statewide and killed hundreds of Texans.
Dr. Joshua Rhodes is a research associate with the Webber Energy Group at The University of Texas at Austin. He said these reports are not all bad news, but they are eye-opening as winter is just months away.
"If we have a normal winter, things will be fine. Even if it's colder than normal, things will be fine. It's not all doom and gloom. The report doesn't mean power will go out, but there are scenarios where it would go out. It's not a run to the hills moment, but we still need to pay attention," Rhodes said. "Because responses to these types of events - any weatherization or fixing of the gas system - takes time, if we had another one like that this winter, we will probably have roughly the same result. It might be a little bit better. We've learned a few things, but it does take time to put concrete and steel into the ground."
According to the North America Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, report, ERCOT will barely exceed the minimum expected operating reserve this winter. However, the report - which studied all regional power grids across the country - revealed Texas' power grid is estimated to be depleted to negative-37.1 % of their reserve margin if an extreme weather event were to hit, which is the worst of all grids by a wide margin. The second worst figure is negative-2.1 %.
Back in February, the power grid was less than five minutes away from a system-wide crash known as a "black start," which is an indefinite blackout that would have lasted for weeks or months.
"Extreme generation outages and peak loads similar to those experienced in February 2021 are reliability risks," the NERC report said.
According to a Texas Tribune analysis of the ERCOT report, the state's power grid regulator did not make high enough estimates of power needed or power that can be knocked out in comparison to the figures from the February storm.
Despite these findings, Abbott relayed his confidence in the power grid during an unrelated economic announcement Tuesday night.
"I’m extremely confident the power grid is stable, and resilient, and reliable. I’ve been working very closely with both the PUC chairman and the head of ERCOT, as well as the team we’ve assembled at ERCOT. If you know all of the changes that they have already implemented, as well as additional changes they will continue to implement over the coming weeks, you will know we will have a robust, effective, and safe power grid," Abbott said. "Today our power generation capacity is 15 % greater than it was last February. Today already, there is winterization of all power generation facilities in the state of Texas. Fines will begin next week if there’s any power generating facility that isn’t already winterized. Candidly most importantly, there is a different operational approach. Now, they are proactive as opposed to reactive."
However, the concern among energy experts like Rhodes is not so much the power generation plants. The concern lies with natural gas facilities, which power many of these facilities.
During the winter storm, most natural gas facilities experienced freezing at the wellheads and smaller lines that send them to processing facilities before they get pushed to power generators through the bigger pipelines.
"That cut it off at the source, so it wasn't able to move to power plants. We need to make sure the entire system is robust to a certain level so we don't have issues like February," Rhodes said. "If we have a bunch of power plants that we fix, but they still can't get fuel, then I think we end up in roughly the same issue. We need to fix both sectors, and we're really only moving forward with the electricity sector."
Rhodes said the new laws in place do not do enough to ensure natural gas facilities do not crash like they did last February.
Basically, the new laws address only the power generators and providers, not the natural gas facilities that power these power plants.
"Most people experience this event through the lens of electricity. That's what went out. Because half of the power plants in the ERCOT system run off of natural gas, we need to make sure they can get fuel during this time, or they're not going to be able to produce the electricity that we want during that time, too," Rhodes said. "There's multiple ways of increasing resilience. One is mandating a power plant is able to operate down to a certain temperature. Some of the reports we found at UT was that a lot of plants tripped offline for winter weatherization issues above their minimum rated temperature. [We need to make] sure they're able to operate down to those low temperatures, but also making sure they can get the fuel that they need."
Since the storm, Abbott and state lawmakers have touted new laws that were passed in this year's legislative session. Specifically, they have trumpeted Senate Bill 3, which requires all electricity generators and providers to weatherize - which means to prepare their plants in a way that would allow them to still operate during extreme weather conditions. Violations of this law could result in a penalty of $1 million per day. Facilities that experience weatherization failures will have to get a third party to assess their plans and procedures.
Natural gas facilities that have declared themselves to be critical infrastructure must also weatherize. However, the part about being deemed critical infrastructure is a built-in loophole in the law allowing these facilities not to comply.
During a committee hearing in September, it was revealed gas facilities were behind in weatherization efforts because of this loophole. Natural gas facilities need to voluntarily register with the state as critical infrastructure in order to be scrutinized under the new law.
The NERC report also picked up on the fact natural gas facilities tripping offline is a risk once again this winter.
"Disruptions to pipeline natural gas supplies and natural gas production sites, as observed in Texas RE-ERCOT in February 2021, can have the potential to affect power system reliability in winter," the NERC report said.
When asked if he would call a special session if the power grid fails again, Abbott kept his comments focused on his confidence in the system.
Rhodes said if it gets to a point where lawmakers are once again called to the pink dome of the Texas Capitol to tackle the power grid, they need to focus on natural gas.
"We do need to decide what level of insurance we want to buy because you can buy too little or too much. We can spend too much money on the system, and the electricity would be more expensive than most people are willing to pay," Rhodes said. "We don't see the same types of laws or accountability on the gas side."