April 2021, Vol. 248, No. 4

Editor's Notebook

Great Freeze Revisited

By Michael Reed, P&GJ Editor-in-Chief

I suppose if I just wanted to write a column that assigned the “villain” label to someone involved in the Great Texas Blackout of 2021, there would be plenty of worthy candidates from which to choose.

However, based on how productive name-calling has been in our recent history – remember 2020, the year we could not wait to put behind us? – I think I’ll leave that endeavor to someone with more free time on their hands.

Don’t get me wrong, as a Texas resident who spent a day-and-half in freezing temperatures without electricity (and a week without clean water), I got fairly angry myself between shivers, and cursed a lot of people and organizations while I did so.

Still, in many ways, we have ourselves to blame for much of what led up to this debacle. At least those of us who have been in the Lone Star State since 1999 do.

That was when the State Legislature, with the leaders of both political parties on board, along with then-Gov. George W. Bush and the majority of the Texas populace, decided to endorse an electricity delivery system that gave control of the state’s grid to private generators, energy retailers and transmission companies.

We did so in exchange for the promise of lower power costs, which generally speaking came true, and the pledge that the independent, almost statewide grid would be improved and be further developed over time. Obviously, it was not.

Cut to two decades later, and the “further developed” part of that equation has still not been addressed in any perceivable manner. This despite a “reminder” along the way that came a decade earlier in the form of a major blackout in 2011. As a result, when recent weather was so severely cold that it froze up West Texas natural gas fields, the state was still no closer to a solution.

Natural gas accounts for 47.4% of electricity generation in Texas, according to data supplied by the grid operator Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), so obviously supplies are vital.

As integrated power company NRG President Mauricio Gutierrez told lawmakers at a recent hearing in the state capital of Austin, “If natural gas is compromised, the power system is going to be compromised.”

And it was. When freeze-ups of wellheads and pipelines led to pressure drops across the natural gas network, equipment failure and lack of fuel supply accounted for the bulk of generation losses.

Executives with other power companies, including Vistra and Calpine, agreed with Gutierrez, also blaming natural gas shortages for the shutdown of more than half of the state’s winter peaking generation fleet.

ERCOT initiated what it called “rolling blackouts,” but were in reality shutdowns of a day or more for much of the state, in order to prevent a total collapse of the grid.

When first initiated, the state’s electrical grid worked well most of the time, in part due to the abundance of natural gas in Texas, but the system provided little in the form of enforceable rules to safeguard against catastrophes like what just occurred.

At this point, it seems obvious to me that a couple of things deserve consideration to rectify this – foremost among those being the institution of a “reserve margin” to provide extra power above expected demand. It’s not a radical idea. In fact, such plans have already been established by every other power system in North America.

Let’s face it: The lack of such an enforceable guideline has left little reason for companies to head off such problems.

Additionally, since similar equipment generally manages to function well in locations that get far colder than Texas, required winterization guidelines would seem worth considering

Finally, storing a reserve of natural gas in the proximity of power plants could limit the number of shortages and outages that occur when production or transmission sources shut down.

Obviously, this is an over simplistic approach to a complex problem made worse by the lack of attention it has received over the years. Still, I think we have reached the point where Texans need to demand real solutions from those whose jobs it is to provide them.

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