Every time my vintage wall radiator fires up these days it triggers a winter-is-coming warning and flashbacks to a frozen February 2021 and the power crisis that left four and a half million Texas households without power and more than 200, directly or indirectly, dead. Damages statewide to date are estimated at at least $195 billion.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last summer two bills he said would “fix all of the flaws” the state’s main power grid and update the governance of the agency that operates it.
“Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said upon signing.
But ever since then, experts have been telling us that’s not true.
Long before last year’s crisis, analysts were insisting that Texas needed to “weatherize” not only its power plants but also its oil and gas infrastructure. When wellheads and other components in the natural gas supply chain freeze, gas can’t get to power plants, explained Dan Cohan, a professor of civil engineering at Rice University when he spoke with NPR in June.
The omnibus post-winter storm reform bill — Senate Bill 3 — requires electricity providers operating on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid to weatherize their equipment. But it leaves a lot of room for essential oil and gas components to opt out.
(If curious about the history and nitty gritty of Texas power and electricity — what does it look like? Why does Texas have its own? How much energy do we use, and is there a better way? — The Advocate‘s Keri Mitchell along with Texas Tribune‘s Kate Galbraith in 2013 penned series about it.)
Around Abbott’s SB3 signing, Curt Morgan, chief executive officer for Vistra Corp the state’s largest electric provider told KXAN the weatherization requirement would “go a long way,” but it should be a requirement for all parts of the energy system.
“We had a failure of the gas system that also the electric system contributed to as well, so it’s very important that those two systems work seamlessly together,” he told the news station.
This week Morgan talked to Texas Tribune again about the issue.
Texas still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed power plants, he said. If gas systems aren’t weatherized there is nothing his company or any electric provider can do that would be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze.
Texas Tribune reporter Mitchell Ferman calls it “a glaring shortcoming in Texas’ efforts to prevent a repeat of February.” Ferman’s piece explains what legislators including those who regulate the gas industry, have done and are doing to remedy the situation.
The real bottom line is that Texas has done “next to nothing” to weatherize its natural gas supply, Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant told the Tribune.
Weatherization is costly, but reasonable, Dallas Federal Reserve Bank concludes
While the gas situation is a component of a complex and interdependent mechanism, the Dallas Fed reported in April that the 2021 freeze justifies weatherization.
The Fed concluded that, “though the cost of annual preparations for extreme and relatively infrequent weather events has proven difficult for policymakers and industry to justify, the shocking aftermath of the February freeze and the resulting widespread power outage demand a careful re-examination.”
In these parts, Oncor powers 3.8 million homes and businesses. Some good news in the Tribune‘s story is that Oncor says it has received 1,061 forms from gas companies declaring their infrastructure as critical. As explained more thoroughly in the article, the forms are good indicators that those gas companies are likely to be weatherized and prepared to operate during a grid emergency.
How likely is another storm?
Outlooks issued Nov. 18 by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center indicate a warmer and drier-than-normal winter in Central Texas this time around.
Texas’ State Climatologist Dr. Nielsen-Gammon tells KXAN a massive winter storm is less likely to happen this winter.
Winters overall are trending warmer and ice storms like the one last February are exceptional. However, he adds that latest research shows climate change can actually make the occasional, extreme cold snap happen more often.