As many are aware, Texas and Oklahoma were hit by a devastating winter storm, Uri, in February 2021. Texas bore the brunt of the disastrous effects, most notably the major blackout which affected over 10 million people and led to 250 deaths and economic losses estimated at $130 billion. Given the devastating impacts and the likelihood that intense winter storms will increase due to climate change, it is important to understand how it happened and where the Texas grid is now.
To start, most of Texas’ grid is regulated by ERCOT, the non-profit grid System Operator that ensures electricity demanded equals electricity supplied. In an attempt to make their grid more efficient, ERCOT switched to a system to pay for electricity only when it is supplied. This can make it difficult to ensure customers get the necessary power when storms hit.
However, ERCOT’s supply-only system management is not the true culprit here. The true culprit here was the cold; temperatures dropped to as low as 6 degrees Fahrenheit. These sub-freezing temperatures led to equipment freezing, such as substations, pipes, and turbines. When the equipment froze, electricity could not be generated and therefore could not be delivered to consumers, who critically needed it. Most equipment involved in electricity generation and transportation in Texas were not properly winterized to prevent freezing. Properly winterizing equipment is a critical step in ensuring this never happens again.
Following the devastating storm, Texans called for an improved, weatherized grid and lawmakers listened. For starters, lawmakers passed a bill requiring that all ERCOT board members be Texas residents, hopefully ensuring that ERCOT board members are directly invested in keeping the power on. Unfortunately, more consequential actions have been slower in realization. The state legislature placed grid winterization responsibility on the Public Utility Commission (PUC), which has created rules for proper winterization of power plants, transformers, and the lines connecting everything. The potential fines for violating these rules range “between $5,000 to $1 million per violation per day.” Additionally, PUC is requiring all facilities to perform monthly winter testing between November and March each year. As of December, most power plants and utility companies have complied with the new set of winterization rules.
Natural gas facilities, which supply most of the energy for the state, have not been required to winterize their plants the way electrical plants have. These facilities are governed by the Railroad Commission, not the PUC. The Railroad Commission says they will not require winterization of plants until they know which ones have been deemed ‘critical’ through an on-going mapping process. If the natural gas facilities are not winterized properly, then winterizing electrical plants will do little in the face of frozen natural gas pipes.
These new changes faced their first test this past February. One year after the winter storm Uri, Texas was again hit by a winter storm, albeit a weaker one. The winterization of the electrical plants held up against this storm, boding well for any future winter storm. However, it is important to note that many officials say that “the primary reason the grid didn’t fail this was merely that the weather wasn’t as bad.” Temperatures for the most recent storm did not fall low enough to freeze the natural gas pipelines, like they did in 2021.
The changes to the power system holding up are good for two reasons: 1) Texans kept power and 2) Texans will not face additional economic burdens from this storm, especially as many are still reeling from Uri. The economic fallout from Uri is $130 billion, much of which came from the increased cost of electricity. Many power companies are pushing this cost onto consumers, increasing their bills to cover the historic charges. One utility company is even planning on recuperating their losses over the next 25 years by charging consumers more.
Here are resources for if you are ever caught in a severe winter storm:
ISD Emergency Winter Car Supplies Blog and Infographic