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    'A wake-up call': Feds say lack of weatherization, natural gas supply at root of Texas blackouts


    September 24, 2021 - Paul Takahashi, San Antonio Express-News

     

      Sep. 24—Federal energy officials vowed to ensure that Texas improves its electricity grid and natural gas system after widespread blackouts during the February freeze led to more than 200 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

      The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Reliability Corp. on Thursday presented their preliminary findings from the winter storm and outlined a series of familiar recommendations to prevent another catastrophic power failure as climate change brings about more severe weather that threatens the nation's power grids.

      These recommendations, similar to the ones FERC issued in the aftermath of the 2011 Texas blackouts, would require power plants and natural gas producers to protect critical equipment from freezing temperatures, to update power generators that experience freeze-related outages and provide compensation for generators to recoup weatherization costs.

      "This is a wake-up call for all of us," FERC Chairman Rich Glick said. "We must take these recommendations seriously, and act decisively, to ensure the bulk power system doesn't fail the next time extreme weather hits. I cannot, and will not, allow this to become yet another report that serves no purpose other than to gather dust on the shelf."

      Glick said he was "extremely frustrated" that Texas energy regulators and the state's grid manager ERCOT failed to heed FERC's recommendations after a February 2011 winter storm left more than 3 million Texans without power as the Super Bowl was played outside Dallas.

      After that storm, FERC warned ERCOT that power plants and natural gas producers had failed to adequately weatherize facilities. Subsequent recommendations were watered down into guidelines that few power generators and natural gas producers followed, Glick said.

      Had Texas followed FERC's guidance a decade ago, the state could have avoided February's deadly and devastating blackouts, he said.

      "In this day and age, we have people that froze to death because of power outages. That's beyond unacceptable," Glick said. "The worst part about this, one of the points that frustrates me the most, is that some of it was avoidable."

      FERC is the federal agency that oversees the nation's electric grids and natural gas pipelines, and NERC is a nonprofit group that oversees electric grid reliability and security in the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico. It's unclear how the two organizations will enforce their recommendations, given that Texas's power grid operates independently from larger regional grids to avoid federal oversight.

      In a 31-page report published Thursday, FERC said the February winter storm caused the largest forced power outages in the nation's history, and was the third largest blackout after the Northeast blackout in 2003 and the West Coast blackout in 1996. The February freeze was the fourth severe winter event over the past decade, knocking out 61,800 megawatts of power across the Midwest and South, including Texas and Louisiana.

      The Texas power grid managed by ERCOT received the harshest effects of the freeze. The storm knocked out an average of 34,000 megawatts of power on ERCOT's grid, nearly half of its record winter demand load of 69,871 megawatts.

      FERC said the biggest factors contributing to power plants failing were the lack of weatherization of critical equipment and natural gas supply issues at power plants. Nearly 58 percent of the power generators that went offline during the storm were natural gas plants.

      As a result, ERCOT ordered Texas power utilities to implement rolling blackouts to prevent the grid from a total collapse. At the worst of the storm, the grid manager ordered as much as 20,000 megawatts of power to be shed from the grid. These rolling blackouts left more than 4.5 million Texas customers — including 1.4 million in the Houston area — without power for three days as temperatures plunged.

      The rolling blackouts affected natural gas production and processing facilities, most of which weren't exempt from emergency outages, which caused even more natural gas powered plants offline. While other electric grids in the Midwest were able to pull additional power from neighboring grids, ERCOT's was left stranded, which exacerbated the blackouts, Glick said. FERC recommended that ERCOT examine how it implements rolling blackouts and consider additional connections to other grids.

      "ERCOT is essentially an island onto itself, in large part because Texas wants to avoid having its grid regulated in part by this commision," Glick said. "In my perspective, that is very, very short-sighted and amounts to nothing more than cutting off your nose to spite your face."

      ERCOT did not respond to a request for comment.

      The Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, said it welcomed the federal recommendations as the Texas regulator looks to transform the grid.

      "The lessons of Winter Storm Uri have been driving the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT in their shared, aggressive pursuit of market and infrastructure solutions intended to prevent a recurrence," PUC Chairman Peter Lake said.

      The Railroad Commission, which oversees Texas' natural gas system, said it is studying the federal report and declined to comment further.

      Gov. Greg Abbott's office, which appoints regulators to the PUC, didn't respond to a request for comment.

      Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while the state Legislature passed some reforms mandating weatherization for power plants, it didn't ensure that natural gas producers and pipelines protect their facilities from freezing temperatures. Webber said he was glad to see FERC call out the natural gas system as a main culprit for the February blackouts.

      "It was a big step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enough," Webber said of the Legislature's actions. "I don't think these recommendations will be ignored this time. It's the second time in a decade and (hundreds of) people died. It'll get a different kind of sustained attention."

      ___

      (c)2021 the San Antonio Express-News

      Visit the San Antonio Express-News at www.mysanantonio.com

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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