Texas grid fails to weatherize, repeats mistake feds cited 10 years ago
By James Osborne, Eric Dexheimer & Staff Writers February 16, 2021
Ten years ago, plunging temperatures forced rolling blackouts across Texas, leaving more than 3 million people without power as the Super Bowl was played outside Dallas.
Now, with a near identical scenario following another Texas cold snap, Texas power regulators are being forced to answer how the unusually cold temperatures forced so much of the state’s power generation offline when Texans were trying to keep warm.
To start, experts say, power generators and regulators failed to heed the lessons of 2011 — or for that matter, 1989. In the aftermath of the Super Bowl Sunday blackout a decade ago, federal energy officials warned the grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, that Texas power plants had failed to adequately weatherize facilities to protect against cold weather.
A federal report that summer recommended steps including installing heating elements around pipes and increasing the amount of reserve power available before storms, noting many of those same warnings were issued after similar blackouts 22 years earlier and had gone unheeded.
“We need better insulation and weatherization at facilities and in homes,” said Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas. “There’s weaknesses in the system we haven’t dealt with.”
But the repeat of the events of a decade ago is raising questions in Austin as to whether the state has failed to ensure power companies are adequately protecting equipment from the elements. At the peak of the blackout, some 45,000 megawatts of generation capacity were offline, leaving more than 4 million Texans without power.
The ability of Texas’s power grid to keep up with a growing population’s demand for electricity has become an issue in recent years, as generation shortages on hot summer days drove wholesale power prices to soaring levels, maxing out at the state cap of $9,000 per megawatt hour.
Under existing market rules, the incentive for investing in better protection against cold weather is unclear, said Daniel Cohan, an engineering professor at Rice University. “To me our system of electricity is like selling lottery tickets,” he said.
“Ninety-five percent of the year they’re selling power for peanuts,” Cohan said. “They’re counting on selling power at times like these when power prices spike 300 times their normal rate.”