Texas power grid

Feds Recommend Steps to Avoid Future Winter Power Outages in Texas

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Federal energy regulators released a final report Tuesday pinpointing the causes of the massive power outages that crippled Texas in February, and outlining recommendations to avoid a repeat.

The report is the culmination of a months-long investigation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) two entities that regulate the reliability of the U.S. electric grid.

Some of the findings were previously made public in a preliminary report released in September. But the final report offers more depth and detail, along with more specific calls to action for power plant operators, state regulators, and even Congress.

Investigators determined that most of the power outages could have been avoided if power plants and wind turbines had been better protected against the cold and ice. In fact, the authors said protecting key equipment such as sensing lines, transmitters at traditional power plants, along with wind turbine blades, would have reduced the number of megawatts of power lost during the storm by a whopping 67%.

The report recommends that power plants retrofit equipment to withstand more extreme weather and it suggests that power companies should be compensated for retrofitting through support from the government or charges on customer utility bills.

FERC and NERC officials also recommend that new and existing power plants be configured, “…to operate to specific ambient temperatures and weather based on extreme temperature and weather data”.

The report notes that 81% of power plant failures happened in temperatures in which the plants were designed to operate, suggesting that previous assumptions about how they would perform were incorrect in the face of an incredibly powerful winter storm.

As NBC 5 Investigates has reported, the federal inquiry also determined that the second leading cause of power outages was a shortage of fuel for power plants that operate on natural gas. Many power plant operators could not get enough gas at pressures high enough to generate electricity.

The NERC and FERC report recommended Congress and state legislatures require natural gas facilities to better prepare for cold weather. It also recommends that more steps be taken to prevent gas suppliers from having their power cut off during forced power outages, something that contributed to shutting down some gas well operators in Texas during the storm.

The Texas legislature has already passed a series of bills aimed at requiring both gas and electric companies to implement more stringent winter protection. The state’s Public Utility Commission recently adopted new rules requiring winterization of key equipment along with tough enforcement penalties.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the natural gas industry, is also in the process of developing winterization rules, although final rules are still months away. A new state infrastructure “mapping committee” is first examining which parts of the gas system are more directly tied to the production of electricity.

The FERC and NERC report also recommend that ERCOT, which operates the Texas power grid, should study adding more lines connecting Texas to other states. The Texas grid currently has only minimal connections, and the report said this could become a problem if Texas would need to perform a “black start,” a move necessary when a major portion of the grid has completely shut down and a source of electricity is needed to restart the system.

Texas came close to that sort of situation in February as the grid hovered within minutes of a cascading, or uncontrolled, black-out. The report released Tuesday suggested that more interconnection between grids might help provide a safety net if the state were to experience such a catastrophic blackout.

ERCOT told NBC 5 Investigates Tuesday that they welcomed the report and were "pleased to have provided data and other input to help ensure that an event like this never happens again."

"For all the major electric-related issues and recommendations identified in this report, we are confident they are already being addressed in actions taken or underway by the Texas Legislature, Public Utility Commission, or ERCOT. We have made significant progress since Winter Storm Uri and continue to take aggressive actions to ensure electric grid reliability," ERCOT said in a statement. "The electric grid will be able to perform significantly better this coming winter than in the past."

NBC 5 Investigates has examined the causes of the February outages and potential solutions in-depth in an ongoing series of reports called “Powerless.”

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