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So, is the Texas power grid 'fixed'?

A power plant in Midlothian, Texas, "winterized" its infrastructure last fall to guard against future grid failures.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A power plant in Midlothian, Texas, "winterized" its infrastructure last fall to guard against future grid failures.

While there have been improvements to the grid over the past year and a half, some of the root causes of the blackout are still unaddressed.

It's been a year and a half since the blackout in Texas that left hundreds dead and millions of people in the dark and cold. In that time, state leaders, regulators and the electric industry have been talking a lot about how to prevent another disaster.

But several calls for power conservation this summer have left regular people wondering just how much has changed. So what exactly has been fixed? How much better off is the Texas power grid?

Let's look at each point of failure in the 2021 blackout to see what's different.

The wires

The first stop on our journey is the wires that bring power to your house — your local distribution grid. If your power has gone out at any point since February 2021, it's most likely because of a problem with local distribution wires or equipment.

It's not unusual for severe weather and extreme temperatures to knock out wires and equipment on the local level. In 2021, a nationwide report from the Illinois Citizens Utility Board found Texas ranked 29th in power grid reliability — mostly because of the frequency and duration of local power outages.

"The problems on the distribution grid in Texas are enormous and barely recognized, and it's a lot of the same problems," Doug Lewin, an energy consultant in Austin, said. "When you get super hot [or] super cold, transformers don't work as well; they start breaking."

Utilities say burying millions of miles of power lines underground is prohibitively expensive. Short of doing that, little can be done to stop them from getting knocked down in severe weather — though more effective tree trimming could help.

Local distribution companies also contributed to the severity of the blackout through their inability to "roll."

When ERCOT ordered local distribution companies to turn off parts of their service area to save the rest of the grid, they were supposed to rotate those blackouts; that is, turn one area off, then switch to another to give people power at least some of the time.

It helps to imagine your local distribution grid like a pizza.

"The smaller you can cut the pizza, the more people you can feed at least some portion of pizza," said Alison Silverstein, a former staffer for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

The problem during the blackout was that the slices of local distribution were too big. So huge areas with critical facilities — like hospitals or water plants — were left on, but other areas were left in the dark for days on end. So, what if you could cut smaller slices? Make more sections of the local grid so that a future blackout could roll?

"You may still be out until Thursday, but you've got a few hours in service, and you're rotating the available electricity among smaller circuits so that people's homes and pipes might not have frozen at all," Silverstein said.

Have local distribution companies done this?

There's no evidence they have. In Austin, officials at the city-owned utility have said it's too expensive to cut the local grid into smaller circuits. In a statement, CenterPoint Energy, the local distribution company for Houston, said it has done some work around this, but did not provide details. There's been no public discussion from state regulators about requiring these kinds of changes.

Is it fixed? No.

The power plants

The biggest culprit in the blackout was nuclear, coal and natural gas power plants. Wind and solar underproduced in the extreme weather, too, but to a lesser extent. So, why did they fail?

First, they froze up. The subfreezing temperatures damaged equipment and forced the plants to shut down. It was similar to what happened to a smaller number of plants in less severe weather back in February 2011. After that storm, federal regulators recommended winterization standards for Texas power plants. But the state didn't make those standards mandatory.

Now, they're mandatory. The Public Utility Commission finalized those standards last year. By this past winter, ERCOT had sent inspectors to power plants that had failed in 2021 and found all but a handful were in compliance with the new standards.

Is it fixed? Yes.

But: We don't yet know how these plants will fare in winter conditions as bad — or worse — than the winter storm in 2021. This past winter was relatively mild in comparison. And climate change could bring even more extreme weather.

Mitch Borden
/
Marfa Public Radio

The natural gas system

Thermal power plants need fuel to run. Coal plants need coal. Natural gas plants need natural gas. But some of the same problems that afflicted power plants also slowed down the natural gas system in Texas.

Gas wells in West Texas froze up. Equipment used to move gas from one place to another froze up. And getting gas to power plants to turn it into electricity became a huge problem.

The natural gas system was just not built for such extreme cold. Most infrastructure in Texas is built for the heat, because that's what it has to endure most of the time.

After this failure, lawmakers and regulators decided to implement some standards for winterizing natural gas infrastructure. The Railroad Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates oil and gas production in the state, has proposed rules for requiring weatherization of gas facilities, including fines of up to $1 million a day for noncompliance. But exactly which facilities the requirements will apply to are still up in the air. The oil and gas industry is lobbying the Railroad Commission to limit the number of facilities subject to the new rules.

Is it fixed? No. The rules have not been finalized.

But there was another problem: Many natural gas facilities actually had their power cut during the blackout, meaning they couldn't send gas to power plants and power plants couldn't produce electricity. It created a negative feedback loop that made the blackout worse for everyone.

The problem was many gas facilities had not completed a simple form and sent it to their local distribution company to tell them, "Hey, we're a critical facility; don't turn our power off."

Many of these gas facilities have since sent in this form.

Is it fixed? Probably yes.

The market

So far, we've discussed only the physical parts of the grid. But we also need to mention what's changed with the thing that controls all of that stuff: the market.

The rules of the market are what dictate a lot of what happens on the grid — from what gets built to which power plants turn on and when. The Texas market is built on the concept of scarcity. When power is plentiful, prices are lower. When power is scarce, prices go up. They went way up during the blackout — up to the cap of $9,000 per megawatt — because electricity was so scarce that there wasn't enough of it to go around. The huge bills that piled up over several days of maxed-out prices triggered a financial catastrophe Texans are still paying for.

At the start of this year, the state-imposed cap on electricity prices was lowered to $5,000 per megawatt. That could mitigate some of the financial damage if Texas finds itself in a situation similar to the 2021 blackout. But in addition to the lower price cap, the Public Utility Commission is allowing prices to start rising sooner.

Basically, the idea is to encourage power plant owners to switch on before the power grid gets tight by giving them a chance to make more money.

"These power plants that are being ordered online are generally the oldest and least efficient power plants. It's like asking your 1972 Pinto, can you drive 100 miles an hour every day? No — at some point something's going to break." Beth Garza, a former independent market monitor for ERCOT

"It's driving the incentives for more generation to be online, providing higher level of reserves," Beth Garza, a former independent market monitor for ERCOT, said.

So while this doesn't necessarily address a factor that contributed to the blackout, the idea is to keep us further away from a crisis by encouraging more reserves to be online. However, the changes have also cost Texas electricity customers $1 billion in the first half of 2022.

There's another change that happened over the past year or so: ERCOT is commanding power plants to come online more often.

The way the market has historically worked, power generators choose to sell power when it benefits them financially. But since the blackout, ERCOT is more often taking that control away from them. If the grid operator sees a situation where demand could come too close to supply, instead of waiting for the market to encourage power plants to turn on, it simply orders them online.

"I think it's being done prematurely and being done in a way to potentially feel better about reliability in the short term without recognizing that there are long-term risks of that," Garza said.

Forcing them online has also added another $1 billion to Texans' electricity bills so far this year, and it could wear them down over time.

"These power plants that are being ordered online are generally the oldest and least efficient power plants," Garza said. "It's like asking your 1972 Pinto, can you drive 100 miles an hour every day? No — at some point something's going to break."

That could mean failures when we need the plants the most.

Is it fixed? No. The changes made to the ERCOT market are band-aids.

But there are discussions about bigger picture changes — perhaps as far as overhauling the entire operating principle: scarcity. There are proposals to move to a model that many other grids use, where power plants are simply paid for being available — not just when they're producing power, like the current system in Texas.

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Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Matt has been a reporter at KUT off and on since 2006. He came to Austin from Boston, then went back for a while--but couldn't stand to be away--so he came back to Austin. Matt grew up in Maine (but hates lobster), and while it might sound hard to believe, he thinks Maine and Texas are remarkably similar.
Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.