Texas’ power grid remains vulnerable to severe winter weather events nearly a year after deadly winter storm Uri caused widespread power outages and killed around 700 people last February.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly asserted that the utility system will be able to weather a major storm. At a press conference in early December with Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the two men issued a “guarantee” that the Texans’ lights will not go out this winter.
But it has become increasingly clear that these claims have no basis.
Data released by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and analysis by industry experts show the Texas power grid is still unprepared for the harsh winter weather. And recent reports from the Texas Tribune revealed that Abbott did not meet with industry executives until several weeks after the press conference, failing to validate his claims before announcing them publicly.
Abbott’s promise that the lights will stay on this winter is a political move meant to bolster his re-election campaign for 2022. He has bet on the possibility that inclement weather will not affect the power grid, hoping he can s’ give credit for improving the system. and rectify the disaster of February 2021.
It is no coincidence that Democrat Beto O’Rourke announced his candidacy for governor in mid-November. O’Rourke has sharply criticized the way Abbott handled the winter disaster, making blackouts a central focus of his campaign so far.
“This ‘promise’ is dangerous, potentially deadly,” O’Rourke said after Abbott’s press conference. “Experts continue to warn that Texas could face another grid outage the next time we experience an extreme weather event. Abbott and his appointees shouldn’t bet our lives on the weather.
With 60 percent of Texas voters expressing disapproval of the state’s handling of the issue, according to a Texas University / Texas Tribune October poll, the two candidates will seek to capitalize on what the winter season has in store for the electricity grid.
Abbott even went so far as to intervene with the Association of Electric Companies of Texas (AECT), asking them to give a “positive” turn to the state of weatherization of the network. On December 8, the same day as the Lake press conference, AECT issued a statement detailing preparedness plans for winter weathering, but refrained from making statements on the ability to withstand winter harsh weather this year. .
Several power companies have made progress in updating their equipment in anticipation of a major winter storm. However, natural gas companies, which provide nearly 45 percent of the energy for power generation, largely don’t.
This is due to a loophole in recent Texas legislation requiring winter weather improvements in the power grid that allows gas companies to apply for an exemption from the new regulations. Rules promulgated by the Utilities Commission allow gas utilities to submit an exemption request detailing their inability to comply with new regulations and plans to deal with inclement weather in the future.
Additional regulations from the Texas Railroad Commission, which is responsible for regulating the natural gas industry, are written to make weather protection mandatory by 2023, but also allow gas companies to opt out of regulation by refusing to register as “critical infrastructure”.
Texas lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, said they were surprised to learn that the legislation they themselves passed had these loopholes. In a fall 2021 Texas Senate committee hearing with Railway Commission executive director Wei Wang, senators lambasted the director for failing to enforce the weatherization of public services. Wang, however, informed senators that his committee had simply drafted its rules to reflect the language of the law passed earlier that year.
As a result, Texas has “done next to nothing” to tamper with the gas supply system, according to Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant interviewed by the Texas Tribune .
“We don’t have a regulatory system in place that holds the industry to account. That’s the problem, ”Lewin continued. “It’s not a problem of technology or engineering. It is a regulatory problem.
The collapse of the natural gas supply chain was a major factor in the blackouts that hit much of the state last February. During the storm, up to half of the state’s gas supply was cut off due to equipment freezes and weather conditions. Notably, many gas utilities have been unable to operate due to power outages caused by the gas shortage, resulting in a feedback loop of insufficient supplies of fuel and electricity.
Given the poor state of weatherization in Texas, it’s no wonder that ERCOT’s own projections show that even a weaker storm than last year could cause widespread blackouts. ERCOT’s most severe projection for this winter estimates the Texans will ask for 73,000 megawatts at any given time. Still, experts say Texas needed 77,000 megawatts to keep the lights and heat on during winter storm Uri.
While ERCOT predicts a low probability of its worst case scenario occurring, in four of the five scenarios considered, the grid would run out of a significant amount of power. With harsh winters becoming more frequent in Texas due to the impact of climate change, state regulators and utility companies are playing a dangerous game of chance that could cost lives.
A lack of data from regulators and industry sources makes it impossible to know how many facilities have been tampered with, but reports indicate the industry as a whole is woefully ill-prepared. According to Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, more than 1,000 facilities have submitted documents to be registered as “critical infrastructure.” This is an increase from 60 last year, and these facilities would be required by law to make improvements to winter weather conditions.
However, that 1,000 is out of over 250,000 across the state. Without any official data on how many facilities actually prepared for another major winter storm, Texans are unsure whether the power grid will survive another major weather event.