AUSTIN (KXAN) — We’ve talked a lot about whether power plants are ready to handle this week’s frigid temperatures, but one of you asked us: What about the natural gas system?
Most of Texas’ electricity comes from natural gas, according to ERCOT.
Austin Energy, for example, owns and operates two of its own natural gas plants.
“That means when a freeze comes, we need both for the power plants to be able to stay up and running and for there to be enough natural gas fuel to supply those,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.
Natural gas problems forced 87% of unplanned outages back in the February storm of 2021, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, an international nonprofit that develops and enforces reliability standards across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott explained that the process happens in three major parts: Gas has to be pulled from the ground and processed. Then, it’s pumped into pipelines that deliver the gas to power plants. Finally, the plants generate power for your home.
All of those steps experienced problems during the February 2021 storm, Cohan said. About two-thirds of our natural gas electricity was lost because power plants malfunctioned.
“The water supply froze, equipment froze,” he said.
He said about one-third of natural gas electricity was lost because of a lack of fuel.
“There were shortages of how much gas was being pumped out of the ground, and the… pipelines that carry the gas to the power plants had malfunctions…had compressors that went out,” Cohan explained.
All of that meant that 40% of the natural gas power supply wasn’t available when we needed it most last February, he said.
This time, many things are different. Let’s start with the power plants.
ERCOT said they’re inspecting plants right now to make sure they’re winterized.
“Starting the beginning of December, we’ve got our inspection crews out and we’ve got some additional contracting crews out looking at plants right now,” the agency said in a meeting this week.
Their goal is to have half of their commercially operated facilities inspected by the end of February. Right now, they said the Public Utilities Commission of Texas requires generators to be inspected once every three years.
Austin Energy said both of their natural gas plants were inspected—and passed—in the last two years.
Abbott said pipelines are also ready to go.
“The pipelines are fully winterized and have necessary to make sure there will be no inadequacy of natural gas flowing through the pipelines,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday.
Cohan explained that in February 2021, a big problem was that compressors and equipment for the pipelines that ran on electricity were part of the rolling blackouts, so crews couldn’t operate and bring in more gas that was needed.
That, he said, created a domino effect resulting in even more blackouts.
Now, those have been designated as critical, and won’t be subject to blackouts.
“We now have better critical infrastructure designations on processing plants and compressor pumps for… gas facilities, so that the problem experienced in 2021 of losing pressure on the lines because of loss of electricity that led to power plants losing gas won’t occur,” said Peter Lake, chairman Public Utility Commission of Texas, during Wednesday’s press conference with the governor. “This has all been designated critical, it won’t lose electricity, and so the gas will continue to flow.”
Finally, Abbott said leaders have taken steps to address gas sources.
“We have more power available than ever before. We’ve got more backup fuel,” Lake said.
Abbot said major gas gatherers and processors have also “been contacted” to make sure they take keep wells from freezing.
“To make sure that adequate natural gas coming out of the ground will be gathered, processed, and make it into the pipelines. It’s completely different than it was two years ago,” Abbott said.
“Ahead of this week’s cold weather, the Texas oil and natural gas industry has been hard at work committing extensive resources and implementing weatherization practices to ensure that the production and transportation of oil, natural gas and refined products can continue even in the most extreme conditions. No matter the temperature, we are doing our part to be winter ready.”Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association
But Cohan said there may be a gap there.
“There are thousands of natural gas wells and gathering equipment and other equipment that’s in the field that not all of that is going to be winterized,” he said.
While ERCOT is responsible for inspecting power plants, it’s up to the Railroad Commission to regulate the oil and gas supply.
He said similar gas and oil sources are equipped to operate in the freezing cold.
“It’s certainly possible to drill for natural gas in cold conditions, such as in Canada and North Dakota, there are a lot of gas wells and gas gathering lines that are prepared for this. In Texas, those investments haven’t been made, and so we will see some temporary drop off in production,” Cohan said.
In a press release on Tuesday, the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) said even with their winterization measures, they expect a dip in production.
“Variation in daily natural gas production occurs with sudden temperature changes because these are field operations, not controlled factory settings,” the agency said.
Cohan said he wouldn’t be surprised to see gas production dip 10% or 20%.
TXOGA insisted that there is plenty of fuel in storage to get through those dips.
“During significant weather events and expected production declines, daily production combined with natural gas storage provides ample access to product for power generation and local distribution companies that have contracted for these services,” the agency said.
Cohan said another bright spot comes with solar and wind energy through this cold snap.
He said this storm is bringing in strong winds, without the ice of February 2021.
“So this time, we should see at least in the first day, a lot more wind power generation than we had last time that will help a lot,” he said.
As the front rolls through, Cohan said ERCOT expects a good amount of solar power production that should help with electricity during daytime hours.
“So, with the slightly warmer conditions… without the icy conditions and hopefully with our power plants better winterized, this is the sort of storm that ERCOT should be able to handle without many problems,” Cohan said.