DALLAS — Many Texans are rightfully asking why the largest energy producing state in the country cannot produce enough energy to get through a week of below-freezing temperatures.
So, what happened? Equipment failure turned out to be a big part of the problem.
"Beginning around 11:00 p.m. [Sunday night], multiple generating units began tripping off-line in rapid progression due to the severe cold weather," said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at ERCOT, the organization that manages the state’s electric grid.
What does that mean? Equipment literally froze in the single digit temperatures and stopped working.
Then, as reserves diminished, ERCOT asked transmission providers to turn off large industrial users that had previously agreed to be shut down. But the situation deteriorated quickly, requiring rotating outages that have lasted hours for many Texans.
Electric generating plants did not properly winterize their equipment, said Dr. David Tuttle in the latest episode of the Y’all-itics political podcast. Tuttle is a research associate with the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
"There are things that can be done, but it will cost some money," he added. "About every decade we have these long-sustained periods. And then, you know weatherization is supposed to happen, and then, it doesn't because it costs money."
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ERCOT said almost 34,000 megawatts of electricity has been forced off the system. On average, a single megawatt can power about 500 homes.
This isn’t the first time that weatherization has been an issue with equipment failure and rotating outages in Texas.
In August 2011, six months after an ice storm crippled much of the state and resulted in rotating outages, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a report with recommendations.
"Generators and natural gas producers suffered severe losses of capacity despite having received accurate forecasts of the storm," the report states. "Entities in both categories report having winterization procedures in place. However, the poor performance of many of these generating units and wells suggests that these procedures were either inadequate or were not adequately followed."
That investigation revealed what happened in 2011, also happened in 1989, which is the first time ERCOT ever implemented rotating outages.
"The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side. In that year, as in 2011, cold weather caused many generators to trip, derate, or fail to start. The [Public Utility Commission of Texas] investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators.
These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011," the investigation discovered.
Fast forward a decade and here we are again.
Winterizing equipment – making sure it can sustain extended periods of below-freezing temperatures – has never been a requirement in Texas like other states.
"All of us would love to say, we want super reliable [electricity]," Tuttle said. "It would be millions to really bulletproof the system for that. How much do we want to pay to go protect ourselves with insurance policies for rare events?"
It’s a fair point. Rotating outages are rare in Texas, only happening about every decade or so.
But in dangerous cold, like much of what has enveloped the state this week, lives could be put at risk since many people are trapped at home, unable to leave because of treacherous travel conditions. Not to mention, some older individuals live in poorly insulated homes.
But Texas lawmakers are asking questions, again.
With the legislature currently in session, it’s likely that this situation will get the attention of state leaders.
"The Texas power grid has not been compromised," wrote Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, on Twitter Monday afternoon. "The ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas & coal generators. They are working to get generation back online."
As it manages the emergency, ERCOT defended its winter plan.
"This event was well beyond the design-parameters for a typical or even extreme Texas winter that you would plan for," said Woodfin, with ERCOT. "They began as rotating outages but they’re [now] controlled outages and they are lasting longer than what would normally happen because of the magnitude."
But history says Texas should have known better. But what’s the price we’re willing to pay?