BY ERIN DOUGLAS
Dozens of natural gas companies failed to do the paperwork that would keep their facilities powered during an emergency, so utilities cut their electricity at the very moment that power plants most needed fuel. The mid-storm scramble to fix the problem exposed a regulatory blind spot.
On Valentine’s Day, the major utility that supplies electricity to West Texas readied for a severe winter storm. Hired contractors prepared to fix power lines, managers started up the storm emergency center, and operators reviewed the list of facilities that should — no matter what — keep power during an emergency: 35 of them on Oncor’s list were natural gas facilities that deliver fuel to power plants.
As Sunday turned to Monday, Allen Nye, the CEO of Oncor, one of the state’s largest transmission and delivery utilities, thought his team was ready.
But the situation rapidly deteriorated as the storm bore down on Texas. At 1:20 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, ordered the first cut of power to bring demand down to match an extremely low power supply as the frigid temperatures caused power plants to rapidly trip offline.
Oncor’s team, along with other utilities, began a plan to roll outages at 15- and 30-minute intervals. But just before 2 a.m., ERCOT ordered them to take even more power offline — then kept ordering more reductions. By late Monday morning, ERCOT had ordered 20,000 megawatts of power offline; Oncor’s share was 8,000 megawatts, or enough to power 1.6 million homes.
Rolling the outages “quickly became impossible,” Nye said. “We sat there praying that electrons showed up.”
With millions of Texans without power, Nye got an urgent request from DeAnn Walker, then chair of the Public Utility Commission: She needed Oncor to flip the switch back on to certain natural gas facilities that couldn’t deliver fuel to power plants without electricity. A PUC spokesperson said Walker was “ceaselessly” on the phone, calling Nye about dozens of natural gas facilities that weren’t on Oncor’s “critical” list.
That meant that Oncor, which delivers power to the Permian Basin — the state’s most productive oil and natural gas basin — had unwittingly shut off some of the state’s power supply when it followed orders to begin the outages.
The desperate scramble to power up natural gas facilities again exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Oncor and other utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed, company executives, regulators and experts said.
It’s the electricity customer’s responsibility to fill out the form, which is provided by electric utilities, usually online (ERCOT provides a second avenue with its own form). Retail electricity providers inform residents and businesses of their right to apply, according to a PUC rule.
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