Bill Montgomery, UH Energy Scholar
While accusations fly over which power sources failed Texas the most and which agencies are at fault, it’s worth looking at how the state can avoid hitting another deadly low point like the one it just endured.
The storm is over and temperatures have climbed back to their normal range. Lawmakers in Austin are hearing testimony about all that went wrong to create the crisis. Meanwhile, Texans are confronting their losses.
A lawsuit has already been filed against Texas’ grid operator over an 11-year-old Conroe boy’s death during the freeze. A family in San Antonio was raising money for the funeral of a 73-year-old man whose oxygen machine shut down when he lost power. An 84-year-old Houston grandmother froze to death after her electricity went out, and then thieves ransacked her apartment.
The disastrous freeze last week caused dozens of other deaths around the state as well. And as Texas recovers, many others are tallying the cost of the freeze in burst pipes and flooded dwellings and lost pay and reduced productivity.
Damage estimates from the storm are ranging up to the $125 billion that Hurricane Harvey cost, or even more than that, with each of Texas’ 254 counties feeling the effects.
The hearings in Austin and debates over the Texas power system’s failure could be a guide to which power sources to build later and bigger questions about Texas’ market structure. But it’s also crucial to look at how to fortify power systems and plan how to avoid disaster when another deadly storm arrives.
The key is planning as weather patterns become less predictable.
“The changing climate means the past is no longer a guide to the future. The entire country must get much better at preparing for — and insuring against — the unexpected,” Jesse Jenkins of Princeton University wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece.
And a lack of planning is what Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the University of Houston’s chief energy officer, faulted in Texas’ deadly crisis.
He said the Electric Reliability Council of Texas had accurate forecasts in hand before the storm plowed into the state.
Krishnamoorti’s playbook would have been based on the likely failures. Oil production would be curtailed because of minus 10 temperatures in the Permian. Associated gas production, then, would stop as well.
Therefore, “Don’t use produced gas. Use stored gas.”
Then, do everything you can to keep pumps running at natural gas-fueled plants.
Finally, as a last step as power generation slid, go to rolling blackouts by a well-orchestrated plan that was already shared with local governments.
Adam Sinn, president of power trading firm Aspire Commodities, that ERCOT’s predictions five days before the storm indicated a record winter demand for power was ahead.
“ERCOT’s own forecast was showing major capacity deficiencies. How could ERCOT not see this coming? It was so obvious,” he told the Houston Chronicle.
Krishnamoorti said the agency knew what was coming.
“It’s just dumb the way we did this,” he added.
But the leader of Texas’ grid operator has been defending the agency.
And when state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, asked him Thursday at a hearing in Austin if he would change anything in how he handled the early hours of the crisis, he said:
“As I sit here now, I don’t believe I would.”
Beyond what just happened, some experts are calling for a look at the big picture.
Gavin Dillingham, program director for clean energy policy at the Houston Advanced Research Center, said a systemic failure like the one Texas experienced points to a need for accurate climate predictions so the state is prepared for what’s ahead. The standard practice has been to look at previous years to predict what’s down the road, but he said that approach is bound to fail as the climate changes.
Instead, improved climate modeling, down to specific areas, needs to be used to guide preparations for extreme conditions. While a winter storm is one thing to worry about, he’s also concerned about droughts and extreme heat sapping thermal plants’ water supplies and causing them to shut down when their power is desperately needed.
He also sees some benefits in linking Texas’ grid to the other two large U.S. networks because they could share power with Texas and ease crisis situations.
“I think there should be a lot of consideration around that,” he said.
He also pointed to microgrids to help avoid outages. For example, a university could generate solar power and keep its lights on in a crisis while even sharing with nearby areas. Battery storage, which is falling in price, would help with this scenario. He added that regulatory changes would be needed to allow that kind of flexibility.
The Environmental Defense Fund has weighed in as well. Among other recommendations, the group said in a report released Friday that Texas’ Public Utilities Commision needs to come up with new guidelines for utilities to use when ERCOT orders rolling outages to ensure they are fair. It also urges requiring utilities to put in place more remote-controlled switches to handle rolling outages.
As far as winterizing natural gas-fuel power plants and natural gas distribution systems, The Wall Street Journal reported that production and power generation both slid by a third in Texas during the storm last week.
Permian wells, pipelines and storage facilities all suffered because they are not designed to operate in extreme cold. And all of that spelled trouble for plants powered by natural gas, which supply the bulk of Texas’ electricity. Wells stopped operating as they lost electricity. Compressors that move natural gas through pipelines stopped working. Icy hydrates clogged pipelines. Power plants ran out of natural gas.
Asked how much it would cost to retrofit Texas’ natural gas-fueled power plants and that fuel’s production system, Dillingham paused.
“Billions of dollars,” he said.
He said the amount is ridiculously vague because any cost estimate has to take into account exactly what’s to be accomplished. There are many possible approaches to hardening the system or parts of it for harsh winter conditions.
Another question is whether wind turbines ought to be prepared for severe winter weather.
With more than 13,000 of them in Texas and the state already depending less on wind power in the winter, it’s also a question of economics. Turbines can be retrofitted with heating systems to keep ice from forming on their blades and causing them to be shut down. Is that an cost-effective, with winter preparations for turbines running 5% to 10% of their cost?
Glenn Hegar, state comptroller of public accounts, authored as a state senator a bill that became law a decade ago after rolling outages during Texas’ 2011 cold wave. that required the PUC to analyze power generators’ reports on their weatherization preparedness for summers and winters. He is dismayed at Texas’ lack of preparation.
He said in an essay in the Dallas Morning News that the governor and lawmakers should not limit their scope to weatherization.
“Do we have the right mix of resources for the state? Are we sending the right market signals to generators? Which providers managed their systems better than others? Should we look at how pricing is determined since Texans have already been asked to conserve and will likely be asked to foot very high bills for the electricity they consumed?” he wrote.
And it’s not just a question of how much to spend and on which parts of the power generating system. It’s also an issue of who pays for it and how. That will take legislative action, in a state that has taken a light-touch approach for many seasons.
Clearly, the ideas are not in short supply for heading off another deadly winter power crisis. Picking the most effective of them and then applying them is now a matter of political will.
Bill Montgomery is a Houston-based writer and editor. He worked at the Houston Chronicle for more than three decades, much of that time editing energy-related stories. He has master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the University of Illinois.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.