9 months after the Texas freeze, the power grid remains vulnerable

This article was published in partnership with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans.

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12/4/2021 5:00:00 PM

Nine months after the Texas freeze, energy experts say the power grid remains vulnerable largely because new regulations allowed too much wiggle room for companies to avoid weatherization improvements. Published in partnership with the TexasTribune

This article was published in partnership with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans.

to get up to speed on essential coverage of Texas issues.MIDLOTHIAN, Texas — After last winter’s freeze hamstrung the flow of electricity to millions of customers from one big Texas utility, the company’s CEO, Curt Morgan, said he’d never seen anything like it in his 40 years in the energy industry.

During the peak days of the storm, Morgan’s company, Vistra Corp., Texas’ largest power generator, sent as much energy as it could to power the state’s failing grid, “often at the expense of making money,” he told legislators shortly after the storm.Feb. 26, 2021

01:14But it wasn’t enough. The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions of customers lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures, and more than 200 people died.Since the storm, Texas legislators have passed measures to make the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott headtopics.com

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said, “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, southwest of Dallas, workers have wrapped electric cables with 3 inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.

An employee of Vistra Corp.’s Midlothian Power Plant in Midlothian, Texas, adjusts the wiring of a power unit Oct. 15. Energy providers like Vistra are preparing their plants for extreme weather after the February winter storm.Shelby Tauber / The Texas Tribune

No matter what Morgan does, however, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said.That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said.

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Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing it in a matter of days more than twice what it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a small fraction of their capacities; the Midlothian facility ran at 30 percent during the height of the storm. headtopics.com

“Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan asked recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.”Twelve miles of pipes at Vistra Corp.’s Midlothian Power Plant in Midlothian, Texas, will be insulated and heated to maintain the internal temperature during extreme weather.

Shelby Tauber / The Texas TribuneIf another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview.The predicament in Midlothian reflects a glaring shortcoming in Texas’ efforts to prevent a repeat of February, when a combination of freezing temperatures across the state and skyrocketing demand shut down natural gas facilities and power plants, which rely on one another to keep electricity flowing. The cycle of failures sent economic ripples across the country that cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

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The power and gas industries say they are working to make their systems more reliable during winter storms, and the Public Utility Commission, the state agency that regulates the power industry,finally actedon recommendations that federal regulators made a decade ago after another severe winter storm.

But energy experts say Texas’ grid remains vulnerable, largely because new regulations allowed too much wiggle room for companies to avoid weatherization improvements that can take months or years. More than nine months after February’s storm — which could exceed Hurricane Harvey as the headtopics.com

costliestnatural disaster in state history — a lack of data from regulators and industry groups makes it impossible to know how many power and gas facilities are properly weatherized.Many energy providers, like Vistra, are preparing their plants for extreme weather to prevent a repeat of last winter's power problems.

Shelby Tauber / The Texas TribuneFor millions of Texans, that means there is no assurance that they will have electricity and heat if there is another major freeze.“If we see a recurrence of the storm we saw last year, people should probably be worried,” said Adrian Shelley, the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Read more: NBC News »

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