The state’s largest power producer said Friday that it will spend more than $50 million to prepare its power plants for the upcoming winter, hoping to prevent a repeat of the widespread power outages that crippled Texas during a February winter storm.
Vistra, which operates 19 power plants in Texas, invited members of the news media to its Midlothian power plant to show some of the steps it is taking to prepare for the winter. The list includes installing more heat tracing equipment, which are small electric lines that keep pipes from freezing, and converting some plants to run on two different types of fuel in case one is unavailable in a crisis.
“On the electric side, I think people are taking actions especially against those items where they had issues,” said Vistra CEO Curt Morgan.
Morgan said his company is doing more to weatherize plants even ahead of new weatherization rules expected to be issued by the Texas Public Utility Commission before the end of the year.
But Morgan expressed concerns that the state’s natural gas system could still pose a threat to Texas power plants this winter unless more steps are taken to prevent frozen gas wells and distribution systems, problems that contributed heavily to outages at natural gas-fueled power plants in February.
At the Midlothian plant, Morgan said the power generating units were able to run at 100% of capacity during the February storm but that gas supply shortages left the plant only able to produce about 30% of the total power it could have made.
Morgan said he fears the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates the gas system, and a newly created state infrastructure mapping committee may not do enough to ensure that significant portions of the gas system are deemed critical to producing electricity and required to winterize.
He also expressed concern that the gas industry may not voluntarily upgrade winter protection because many gas companies profited in February as supplies dipped and gas prices soared.
“If there is an incentive for their system to malfunction and they profit from it … why should they change that behavior? And that worries me,” Morgan said.
The state’s largest oil and gas lobbying group told NBC 5 Investigates that many gas companies are taking more steps to winterize their equipment and that gas companies that profited during the storm simply did a better job of protecting their equipment.
The Texas Railroad Commission also said it is working on new regulations to require better winter protection, but it is not clear how stringent those rules might be or whether they will be in place in time for the upcoming winter.
In our recent streaming series Powerless, NBC 5 Investigates examined how the natural gas industry has downplayed its role in the state’s electric crisis. You can see that entire report below -- or watch it on your TV by streaming it through our apps on Roku and Apple TV.
From new records revealing the causes of the massive February power outages to new interviews revealing potential solutions, NBC 5 Investigates gets to the bottom of the state's power problems in the ongoing streaming series "Powerless," available here.