UT researchers given confidential data on February storm outages, reveal shortfalls


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers at the University of Texas Austin released a 100-page-plus report Tuesday that breaks down factors they believe led to Texas’ power grid failure during the February winter storm.

Those researchers were given access to confidential information through an agreement with the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT). It allowed staff to access performance data for certain electric generators and look at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ (ERCOT) communication internally — alongside other information the public, and the media, have not had access to.

They listed several reasons they believe the winter storm was as catastrophic to the grid as it was, including the following:

  • All types of power plants were impacted by the storm: Across the board, from natural gas to coal to wind and solar, facilities failed to produce. Researchers found that failures in natural gas started before electricity failures, and made issues with electricity worse.
  • Demand forecasts were too low: The study found that even ERCOT’s most extreme winter weather scenario underestimated what demand would be by about 14 percent.
  • Weather forecasts weren’t accurate: Josh Rhodes, one of the researchers for this report, said models didn’t agree on how severe the storm would be until it was too late, making it hard for the meteorologists at ERCOT to respond appropriately.
  • Power generators were in some cases not weatherized correctly: The study showed that winter preparedness for generators was inadequate. Researchers were able to confirm that temperatures played a huge role in the failure of power sources.

“The temperature data we showed here, I think that was not publicly available,” Carey King, one of the researchers and the assistant director of the Energy Institute, said. Low temperatures have been widely blamed for the failures, weatherizing has previously been a big talker among lawmakers.

This graph provided by ERCOT, and used in the report from UT researchers, shows why generators failed to work. The majority of the failures were weather related.

What’s next

Researchers say the report is meant to provide factual data to show what happened during February’s storm, but does not recommend any policy changes or solutions. When asked about whether or not those changes and solutions would be forthcoming King said they “tentatively have plans.”

King also says more research needs to be done.

“Given the talk in the legislature about weatherizing power plants and the natural gas system, the temperature data does sort of bring up the question of: ‘How do you actually verify the temperature resilience of a powerplant?‘” He said. “I certainly think that deserves a higher look.”

ERCOT making changes

The University of Texas report came out the same day ERCOT released a list of 60 changes they’ve made, or plan to make.

In a Monday letter to Governor Greg Abbott, ERCOT Interim President and CEO Brad Jones broke down those changes. It came one week after Abbott sent a letter to the Public Utility Commission of Texas to take immediate action in changing ERCOT’s operations.

“I think it’s a really good step forward. It’s not necessarily going to address all failures identified in our report but I think it was a good document,” Jay Zarnikau, research fellow at the Department of Economics at UT Austin, said about ERCOT’s release.

Zarnikau did not elaborate in a news conference Tuesday about which parts of their report he felt ERCOT fell short on, but we’ve reached out to see if he could tell us more specifically what those shortcomings are. We will update this article if we hear back.

To see other findings from the University of Texas researchers, check out the full report.

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