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Gov. Abbott somewhat backs off confidence in power grid, but outages still not expected

After asserting confidence in the power grid for months, Gov. Greg Abbott shifted tones Tuesday, opening the door for some localized outages. One energy experts said this messaging is welcome, to allow Texans to better prepare. (CBS Austin)
After asserting confidence in the power grid for months, Gov. Greg Abbott shifted tones Tuesday, opening the door for some localized outages. One energy experts said this messaging is welcome, to allow Texans to better prepare. (CBS Austin)
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AUSTIN, Texas (KEYE) — Despite spending the past few months asserting his confidence the power grid won't fail and the power will stay on in any weather event, Gov. Greg Abbott slightly backtracked from his normal confident boasts Tuesday when discussing whether or not he expects anyone to have their electricity cut off during this week's forecasted winter weather across the state.

Throughout Tuesday's press conference, Abbott maintained he believes there won't be another power grid failure that causes statewide power outages like what happened during Winter Storm Uri last February, which knocked out power for millions of customers and killed an estimated hundreds of Texans. Last February's freeze also left the power grid less than five minutes away from crashing, meaning there would have potentially been indefinite blackouts for weeks or months.

However, the governor reined in his usual straightforward confidence in the power grid by opening the door to localized power outages.

"It could be either ice on power lines that would cause a power line to go down, or it could be ice on trees that causes a tree to fall on power lines and cause the power line to go down. That doesn't mean there are challenges with the power grid in the state of Texas," Abbott said.

This is a far cry from his previous statements.

During a November press conference on an unrelated story, CBS Austin asked Abbott if he was confident the power grid will not fail again.

The shift in tones is stark when you compare this to his Tuesday press conferences to what he has said ahead of this week, when he would not provide any signs of doubt despite three regulatory agencies releasing reports around the time detailing how Texas' power grid could suffer similar failures if there was another severe storm.

"I'm extremely confident the power grid is stable, resilient, and reliable," Abbott said in November. "The almost dozen laws that I signed that ensure greater resiliency in our power grid to make sure that no one will face danger again from a power failure."

CBS Austin reached out to the governor's office to ask what caused Abbott to shift tones like this. Spokesperson Nan Tolson provided the following statement:

Thanks to the bipartisan reforms passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the Governor, we have made unprecedented improvements to our electric grid reliability to help ensure Texans do not face another power outage like last winter. However, there is always the possibility of outages from downed power lines and other operational issues that local energy providers face, including outages outside of the ERCOT system that stem from localized issues -- which the Governor has always made clear. We continue working with the PUC and ERCOT to protect critical power infrastructure and increase power generation to ensure the reliability of our electric grid.

This change in messaging, however, is welcome by some energy experts.

Alison Silverstein is an independent energy consultant, as well as a former chief of staff to chairmen of the Public Utility Commission of Texas - or PUC - and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - or FERC. She said it is good to leave the door open for the chance of power outages, especially after the widespread outages across the state last February caught so many off guard.

"This press conference was notable in that it shifted from chest beating to reassurance, which I thought was a good message," Silverstein said. "I think it's useful for them to finally be telling people more details about all of the measures that have been taken, while not offering false reassurances as to that nothing could happen and there's no reason to worry. The fact is that any winter event that involves ice could risk people's lives, whether it's on the roads or in their homes. So, offering a basic thorough public safety assurances and reminders of how to keep your family and your belongings safe is a good thing."

Throughout Tuesday's press conference, Abbott insisted outages would likely be tied to localized events - like ice or tree branches hitting power lines - instead of anything wrong with the power grid.

However, he did reference the possibility of a load-shed event.

"No one could guarantee there won't be a 'load-shed event,' but what we will work and strive to achieve - and what we're prepared to achieve - is that the power is going to stay on across the entire state," Abbott said.

Load shedding is the act of voluntarily turning power off because there is not enough electricity being generated on the power grid.

By definition, if there was a load shed event during this week's storm, it would mean there was an issue within the power grid system.

"Load shedding is an entirely different thing. Load shedding is a deliberate order from grid providers, whether it's from ERCOT or an individual utility, that says, 'I don't have enough power to serve all of the people who want to consume energy, and therefore we have to make the hard decision to cut people off,'" Silverstein said. "[Abbott] is right there probably won't be load shed, because load shed is a really drastic event for a really drastic set of conditions, and this storm doesn't look to be that bad."

After the initial statement, Abbott spokesperson Nan Tolson released this statement specifically regarding the governor's load shed comments:

The Governor was asked this question: “Does that mean if there are any load shed events that it wouldn’t be a success?” The Governor responded, “No one can guarantee there won’t be a 'load shed event.'"
In answering the question, the Governor was referring to a tool in ERCOT’s toolbox to reduce the demand for electricity so that there will not be any blackouts. This is a tool that has larger industrial electricity users who choose to participate in the program reduce their demand for electricity and has no impact on commercial or residential customers. This is the tool Chairman Peter Lake of the PUC discussed at the press conference when he said, “We made our industrial demand response program more accessible and available sooner for us as another measure of redundancy and reliability in our system.

Ahead of this winter, energy experts have sounded the alarm on one aspect of the power grid they believe will be vulnerable in the event of severe winter weather: natural gas supply.

In the wake of last February's deadly storm, state lawmakers passed several laws reforming the power grid. Of utmost interest was the law requiring power plants to winterize, in order to avoid any more freeze-ups.

However, this law does not require natural gas facilities to winterize until next year, meaning there could potentially be several of these facilities without these weather preparations in place for this winter.

Energy experts point to the fact natural gas supply facilities power many of the power plants across the state that provide electricity to the grid and homes, and have said the freeze-up of natural gas played a major role in the widespread outages last year.

Abbott, however, pushed back on this when questioned by CBS Austin if he regrets not calling another special session to make this requirement for natural gas supply facilities more immediate.

"Last winter, there were only 60 facilities in Texas that were designated as critical infrastructure. Now, there are more than 1,500 facilities designated as critical infrastructure, many of those are natural gas facilities," Abbott said. "A lot of what happened last year has been corrected by that critical infrastructure component."

The governor is referring to the provision in the law that outlines how to determine which natural gas facilities need to be winterized.

For the first step in this, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates natural gas, must determine which of these facilities are considered critical infrastructure.

However, this does not mean these facilities have already gone through with the process of winterizing.

The next step of this process, as spelled out in the law, is that a committee made up of Railroad Commission and PUC member - called Electricity Supply Chain Mapping and Security Committee - must map out which of these facilities deemed as critical infrastructure will also be required to winterize. The law sets a September deadline for when the committee must release their map of facilities required to winterize, which sets off a 6-month clock by which the Railroad Commission of Texas - which regulates natural gas in the state - must pass their winterization rules. Leaders of both agencies have expressed a desire to get this done before the deadline, however, so facilities will have the chance to be winterized before next winter.

Silverstein said this means she doesn't expect all of the necessary facilities to be winterized by now, but added this may not matter because this week's storm is not projected to be as bad as Winter Storm Uri.

"Many of those are likely winterized to some degree, but a significant amount of the gas production system has not been winterized, and portions of the processing and delivery system as well," Silverstein said. "Because this will be a much shorter cold weather event, we'll have lots of gas in storage and lots of gas in pipelines, which means there's little risk of running out of natural gas."

Because of the potential vulnerability with natural gas, energy experts have raised some concerns with this incoming weather event.

A Bloomberg analysis revealed natural gas supply dramatically dipped the two times Texas experienced sub-freezing temperatures last month.

Additionally, demand projections for this week have neared previous records, including what would have been the new all-time high for peak load last February if it was not for ERCOT ordering power shutdowns of plants to prevent crashing the grid.

Despite these ominous signs, Silverstein said Texans likely won't experience a repeat of last year's storms.

According to the National Weather Service, the cold snap this week will not be as cold or as sustained as last year's storm.

Silverstein said it's important to manage expectations of this storm, but to still prepare for the worst in case the forecast changes.

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"The fact that it won't be sustained cold means we won't have as much risk of power plant and gas production facility freezes that we saw last year," Silverstein said. "I think the state's going to be fine. If we are not, that shows that a lot of the work that has been done this year in terms of winterization - by power plants and a lot of the claims of how good the condition the natural gas system is in - means that we haven't thought this through, and we're going to have to do a lot better, because this should not be a particularly bad event."

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