Why didn’t Texas power plants winterize after 2011 storms? Lawmaker proposes fine to make it happen

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – You can’t get any farther west in Texas than that sharp point on the map known as El Paso. When a major winter storm hit Texas in 2011, El Paso went dark.

A federal report revealed El Paso Electric lost all eight of its power generators during that storm. It took the power utility three days to get its units running.

El Paso’s low temperatures dipped to 14°F for two days and didn’t rise above freezing for six nights during the February 2021 week storm. Under a blanket of snow and ice, the lights stayed on this time.

A southwest Dallas Mountain Creek power station worker walks in the snow during the February 2021 winter storm that left more than four million Texans without power across the state. (KXAS Photo)

“I think from El Paso Electric and all of its employees, this was personal. And, we made a commitment in 2011 that we said, ‘We’re never going to let this happen again.’ And, our employees made the changes that were necessary,” El Paso Electric Vice President of Operations Steve Buraczyk told KXAN.

The electric utility spent $4.5 million to winterize two of its older power plants. That process took EPE 18 months to finish, Buraczyk said. The utility also built a third plant with the latest winterization technology.

EPE’s winterization efforts protect the utility’s generating plants to -10°F, according to Buraczyk.

The new plant, known as the Montana Power Station, was online and running in 2016, just five years after the 2011 storm that left millions of Texans without electricity. Despite the successes, Buraczyk said natural gas flow to two of its plants caused the utility trouble during last month’s storm.

Natural gas failures last month were blamed for several of the power plant failures inside the ERCOT grid. A pair of executives from Dallas-area power utilities told lawmakers the state’s power sector relies too heavily on natural gas to power generating plants and the freezing weather stopped the flow of gas throughout Texas.

“This was, to some extent, the performance of generators, but the big story here, again in my opinion, was the failure of the gas system to perform,” Vistra CEO Curt Morgan told a House committee on Feb. 25.

Vistra is an energy company located in Irving.

Morgan told the committee 60 to 70 percent of the power generation in Texas relies on natural gas and the electric and gas generation didn’t work “in tandem” during last month’s storm.

“In this storm, natural gas stepped up in a major way to produce power for our electric grid providing the majority of power available during the storm. Loss of power impacted natural gas transmission and was a significant reason natural gas production slowed during February’s winter storm. While the extreme weather created obstacles, many producers deployed winterization techniques such as methanol injection, temperature activated pumps, steamer units, equipment shelters, and insulated critical lines and valves and could have continued producing had it not been for the power losses outside their control. Without power, no amount of winterization would have prevented wells from a reduction or halt in production. We believe the ability to designate natural gas production and transmission as critical load with power providers, and mapping the system to ensure supply chain and power continuity, is part of the key to protecting Texans.”

Todd Staples, Texas Oil and Gas Association President

Preliminary data released by ERCOT this week shows 1,661 units that either experienced an outage or derate between Feb. 14-19, 2021. Of those, 783 were natural gas-powered units and 767 were wind generation units.

FUEL TYPE # OF UNITS
Natural Gas783
Wind767
Solar51
Coal 46
Energy Storage Resource12
Hydro1
Nuclear 1
Data released by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows the number of each “outage or derate” of every ERCOT-registered Generation Resource or Energy Storage Resource that happened any time between Feb. 14 and 19.

Natural gas provides more than 50% of the energy for Texas’ grid, while wind power comprises just over 19%, followed by coal at more than 16%. Nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, biomass, other fossil fuels and oil combined account for just over 11% of Texas’ energy.

This chart produced by the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy shows megawatts produced by fuel source that comprises the Texas energy grid.

Following the 2011 storm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its report into the power outages that happened. The report showed 4.4 million people lost power across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ grid, 3.2 million customers lost power in the 2011 storm. The latest figures show 4.4 million lost power in the 2021 storm.

The 2011 report detailed nine findings — half of those dealt with Texas’ lack of winterization inside its power grid. Regulators wrote the word “winterization” a total of 92 times in the report.

Generators were generally reactive as opposed to being proactive in their approach to winterization and preparedness. The single largest problem during the cold weather event was the freezing of instrumentation and equipment. Many generators failed to adequately prepare for winter

2011 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report

The report listed several steps gas and electric utility companies should’ve taken after the 2011 storm: “failed or inadequate heat traces, missing or inadequate wind breaks, inadequate insulation and lagging (metal covering for insulation), failure to have or to maintain heating elements and heat lamps in instrument cabinets, failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations, lack of fuel switching training and drills, and failure to ensure adequate fuel,” the report stated.

Despite criticisms from electric utilities toward gas utilities in the 2021 storm, the FERC report shows natural gas wasn’t a major contributor in the 2011 ERCOT power grid failures. “Gas curtailment and gas pressure issues did not contribute significantly to the amount of unavailable generating capacity in ERCOT during the event,” the report stated.

Lubbock’s move to ERCOT

When ERCOT issued its power curtailment order in the early morning hours of Feb. 15, utility companies across the state started pulling the plug from homes and businesses.

Lubbock wasn’t one of those places.

The ERCOT grid covers most of Texas. Only 41 of the state’s 254 counties do not fall under ERCOT’s power grid, according to a map posted to the ERCOT website. El Paso is the largest county outside of ERCOT’s purview.

The 41 counties either produce their own electricity or are part of an electric cooperative. The people in those counties are also connected to the two multi-state power grids that cover the rest of the country and stretch into Canada.

These maps posted to the Electric Reliability of Texas’s website shows the two major national grids that surround nearly the western, northern, and eastern sides of Texas. ERCOT shows 41 TX counties that are not part of its grid. (Source: ERCOT)

Lubbock will soon join ERCOT’s grid in June, giving up its current connection to the Southwest Power Pool, a multi-state power grid that stretches north of Texas, covers all of Oklahoma and hugs the Mississippi River to the Canadian border.

“Does Lubbock have any hesitation at this point of joining ERCOT’s grid?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope.

“Sure, we have hesitation,” he replied. “And what we saw happen Valentine’s week causes us a bunch of pause. We’re very concerned.”

Lubbock, like El Paso, did not experience prolonged power outages last month despite temperatures that week barely reaching into double digits. Plainview, a town just north of the city of Lubbock, had a wind chill of -1°F on Feb. 15, according to KLBK meteorologist Heidi Waggoner.

Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope said he was “concerned” about the performance of ERCOT’s power grid during the February 2021 winter storm. Lubbock and its three power plants will join the ERCOT grid in June 2021. (City of Lubbock Photo)

“We had some — a couple days of very short and well-planned and executed rolling outages. So, it wasn’t like we were without issues,” Pope said.

Pope confirmed the electrical problems that cut power to millions of other Texans last month didn’t happen in Lubbock. The mayor said the main problem for Lubbock County came from natural gas.

“The curtailment of natural gas to our industrial users was probably the most significant impact. We had manufacturing plants that were down for more than a week,” Pope said. Lubbock went 30 hours without natural gas flowing, according to the mayor.

Lubbock decided around 2015 to leave the national power grid and join ERCOT. That process has taken years and by June, Lubbock plans to have 70% of its power infrastructure connected to ERCOT’s grid. Pope acknowledged the SWPP’s grid provided Lubbock with a reliable source of electricity in both extreme summer temperatures and the occasional winter storm.  

“Do you have confidence that ERCOT — by the time the city of Lubbock is fully on board — that the problems we saw last month in this storm will be taken care of and the people of Lubbock will have reliable electricity?” Barr asked Pope.

“You know, a big part of that decision is ensuring the reliability is in place,” Pope said.

“You know, the timing may be good. We’re glad we found it out now, before we’re all in,” Pope said. He’s optimistic the 2021 storm will force the legislature to address the apparent insufficient winterization inside Texas’ power sector.

“If Lubbock were part of the ERCOT grid on February 14th, this storm could have been a much different story for your city,” Barr said to Pope.

“I think that’s a fair statement,” the mayor responded.

Legislation on the table

Dozens of Texas lawmakers walked through the Capitol doors on Feb. 25, looking for answers. The House and Senate met in two separate hearings the included CEOs of large power utilities, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas Chairwoman DeAnn Walker.

house hearing 1
State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, questions a witness at a meeting of the Texas House committee on Pensions, Investments & Financial Services, on March 9, 2020. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“In 10 years, nobody moved to vote or to bring to the table — you or none of your board members did that as it relates to weatherization?” Texas Senator Borris Miles asked ERCOT CEO Bill Magness.

“We opened up programs on weatherization, but we didn’t have the ability as ERCOT to have a mandatory weatherization standard for the plants,” Magness told Miles and the entire Senate committee.

“Mr. Chairman, I think that’s something we should put into statute,” Miles said as he closed his questioning of Magness.

Multiple lawmakers spent 15 hours questioning the people in charge of different aspects of the Texas power grid on Feb. 25. Within the next few days, PUC Chairwoman DeAnn Walker resigned and Magness was terminated by the ERCOT board.

Many questions centered on why none of the 2011 winterization recommendations from the FERC report were turned into requirements. The winterization elements were left as mere suggestions, according to Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who questioned Magness in the Feb. 25 hearing.

ERCOT did implement “spot checks” to review the steps energy companies take each year, but without a mandate to winterize, Magness said there wasn’t much ERCOT could do to force the issue.

“I guess the rest was just at the whim of the PUC and the whim of ERCOT was to ask utility companies to please, pretty please winterize your plants. That’s about as far as it went, which was pretty please,” Gutierrez told KXAN.

COUNTY#OF OUTAGES/DERATES
Fannin88
Bexar87
Nueces83
Harris71
San Patricio64
Willacy59
Fort Bend59
Kenedy57
Hale42
Lynn40
This list of the top 10 counties with the highest number of ERCOT-registered generation sources was created from data provided by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The count includes units that experienced either an outage or derate between Feb. 14-19, 2021. (Source: ERCOT)

“Short of doing a book report and telling people why you’re not doing this right, there was no stick by way of a fine or other type of regulation that would have made electric utility companies do the right thing for their consumers,” he added.

Gutierrez told Magness he would file a bill forcing power generators and utility companies in Texas to winterize. Within hours of the hearing, Gutierrez filed SB 817. The bill, if passed, would set a penalty of $100,000 per day for any “water, electric, or gas utility” in Texas whose failure to properly winterize leads to an interruption of service.

“It’s almost as if nobody even gave a damn,” Gutierrez said of what he believes is a lack of thoroughness in implementing the 2011 FERC recommendations. “And certainly, the folks at the PUC and ERCOT that had the ability to make the recommendations to the legislature at that time didn’t do it.”

The legislature did consider SB 1133 in 2011, which initially required “weatherization” for all utility companies in Texas. But, the weatherization mandate “was removed before it passed,” former PUC Chairwoman DeAnn Walker told the Senate committee on Feb. 25.

The final bill did require electric utilities to submit annual “winter weather emergency preparedness” reports to the state by Sept. 1 of each year. Those reports are what Gutierrez called “book reports.”

Gutierrez was a Texas House member at the time.

“Absolutely, there are folks that are responsible for this that didn’t vote for those types of recommendations. We need to move forward and ensure that we’re doing the right thing here and it just didn’t happen,” Gutierrez said.

“We’ve got to make sure that it never ever happens again. This winterization bill is an opportunity to be able to do that,” Gutierrez told KXAN.

Gutierrez’s bill received first reading on March 11 where the House assigned the bill to the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. The committee does not yet have a hearing date set for Gutierrez’s proposed legislation.

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