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Energy expert says Texas should weatherize natural gas to prevent future blackouts

Rows of power lines.
David J. Phillip
Associated Press
Power lines are seen on Feb. 16 in Houston. The Public Utility Commission of Texas has declined to reverse $16 billion in charges from the worst of February's winter storm.

Some regions of the state have seen below freezing temperatures over the last few days, leaving some Texans worried the electrical grid could fail, as it did last February.

After that winter storm left millions freezing and in the dark, Texas lawmakers pressured both the gas and electrical power systems to make their infrastructure more resistant to cold weather.

Even though 2022 has kicked off with chilling temperatures, UT Austin professor and energy expert Micahel Webber said people shouldn’t be too worried about the power grid failing since the recent winter weather wasn’t as severe as last year’s.

“The grid held up, there weren't major problems with gas production. So it's not really surprising that this winter storm we've endured the last couple days didn't really test the system the same way, because it wasn't the same kind of storm,” Webber said.

Unlike in Feb. 2021, the winter weather isn’t consistently at or below freezing all across Texas. Webber said that means the energy system isn’t as strained as it was last year.

“It was below freezing for many hours at a time and never got above freezing for some days at major population centers,” Webber said. “So that storm in February 2021, was just much worse, much colder for much longer across a much wider area of Texas. The last few days were cold, but not that cold, not as long and it kind of warms up during the day.”

The real test for the power grid will be when demand is high, and supply is low, Webber said.

Senate Bill 3 mandated that energy facilities be prepared for “weather emergencies” moving forward. While the legislation helped reform ERCOT and its regulator, the Public Utility Commission, it had few requirements for weatherizing natural gas fuel facilities.

Webber also pointed out that ERCOT only controls the electrical system, not the gas system. It was the gas system, which is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commissioner, that primarily failed during last year’s storm.

“The legislature is not giving gas the same kind of attention or scrutiny or expectations of reliability that the power sector gives to its power plants,” Webber said. “So that's part of the challenge in Texas is the way we experienced the outages at home was with a blackout. That blackout was triggered primarily by gas system failure, and people don't know that. So, we have to look at the whole problem to really get it improved.”

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Haya Panjwani is a general assignment reporter for KUT. She also served as a legislative fellow for The Texas Newsroom during the 2021 legislative session.