As people froze to death or lost limbs to frostbite across Texas this February, dozens of the power plants entrusted to keep residents warm and safe faltered amid the unrelenting freeze — just like they did in 2011.
Nearly 75% of power generation units that sustained outages 10 years ago, when another snow-and-ice storm packed unusual force, also had shutdowns or reduced electrical production during February’s freeze, according to an American-Statesman analysis — and this time they contributed to a near-collapse of the electricity grid that serves the bulk of the state as many additional units foundered as well.
The Statesman found common failures in the 2011 and 2021 emergencies that include:
- Insufficient winterization: Frozen equipment was pegged as the main culprit for the problems at generation facilities a decade ago and likely will be again this year. Already, a preliminary report by the operator of the state’s power grid indicates that more than 60% of plant outages leading up to the emergency in February were directly “weather related,” a figure that stands to grow as additional information becomes available.
- Widespread vulnerabilities: Generation units that had outages or reduced output in both years are key components of more than 40 power plants, with owners that include Fortune 500 companies, such as Calpine, NRG and Vistra, as well as municipalities and electric cooperatives.
- Millions left in the cold and dark: About 14 million Texans had electricity to their homes or businesses cut off at various times during February’s freeze, according to a recent study by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, with power out to 4.5 million at the height of the emergency. The freeze a decade ago was shorter and less severe, but it still knocked out power to an estimated total of 4.4 million Texans over its course and to 1.3 million at its peak.
The 2011 winter storm sparked legislative hearings and calls for more oversight — similar to the hearings that have taken place in the aftermath of this year’s freeze — as well as reports by regulatory agencies documenting inadequate winterization.
But in the 10 years since, Texas lawmakers put no new winter mandates on plant operators, and there remains no minimum standard that they’re required to meet. Instead, to the extent the 2011 storm equated to a flashing red alarm about the need to prepare for potentially lethal cold, it appears to have gone largely unheeded, based on the high percentage of repeat plant problems this year.
At least 133 people, including 12 in Travis County and three in Williamson County, died statewide for reasons related to this year’s frigid temperatures, according to the latest official figures, with many power plants faltering just when needed most — as century-old records for consecutive hours below freezing were being broken in some parts of Texas. Property damage from the power outages has been estimated at nearly $200 billion, while water service to more than 12 million people across the state also was disrupted because pipes froze and burst.
‘Failing twice is pretty damning’
Adrian Shelley, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said much of the suffering might not have happened had power companies, state lawmakers and regulators been spurred to better protect the electricity grid a decade ago, in the wake of 2011’s stark illustration of its winter vulnerability.
“The impact to Texans would have been lessened — and we could have measured that in lives saved and billions of dollars” in property damage averted, Shelley said. “I think that is clear.”
Michael Webber, a University of Texas energy resources professor, cited a lack of regulatory teeth as a primary reason many plants struggled to continue operating in both years. Without the threat of fines or other sanctions to force the winterization of Texas plants, Webber said he thinks many plant operators simply bet that the 2011 deep cold spell was an anomaly that wouldn’t recur anytime soon — instead of an advance taste of things to come.
“Failing twice is pretty damning,” he said. “It means it’s not a random one-off (event) — it’s a pattern. If you act irresponsibly one time and you aren’t punished for it, why wouldn’t you act the same way the second time?”
The agency that oversees the state’s power grid — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT — has said it has no regulatory authority to enforce winterization of Texas plants.
Instead, ERCOT merely advises on “best practices” and offers feedback on winterization plans submitted by the plants. It also has said it conducts about 80 spot checks of plants each year, but only to provide advice and recommendations.
That hands-off approach might be about to change.
Legislature moves to increase oversight
The death and destruction caused by the February emergency — during which millions of Texans were repeatedly left without electricity for extended periods over the course of a week that saw temperatures dip to near zero — have prompted Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other members of the state’s Republican leadership to call increased oversight a priority, despite their typical advocacy for a permissive regulatory climate in Texas.
Already, a bill that would overhaul the state’s power market and grid — and authorize fines of up to $1 million per day for electricity and natural gas companies that don’t winterize appropriately — has been approved by the state Senate and is pending in the House.
That bill and similar legislative proposals to mandate winterization are aimed at averting future winter calamities involving the state’s power grid. But there’s no doubt lawmakers are playing catch-up on an issue that has been well documented for years.
Investigations conducted in the aftermath of the 2011 outages pegged inadequate winterization as the overarching reason for the failures that year, with a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other entities concluding at the time that generators were “generally reactive as opposed to being proactive in their approach to winterization and preparedness” for winter conditions.
Frozen instrumentation and equipment were “the single largest problem during the cold weather event,” according to the report. It cited insufficient or missing heat tracing equipment, wind breaks and insulation, as well as “failure to have or to maintain heating elements and heat lamps in instrument cabinets, failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations, lack of fuel switching training and drills, and failure to ensure adequate fuel.”
Issues with natural gas plants
According to the Statesman’s analysis of ERCOT data, 97 out of 133 generation units that sustained forced outages during the 2011 freeze and remain in service since then also had outages or reduced output this year, meaning they were offline at least once during February’s cold snap or experienced reduced production. The analysis is based on ERCOT-provided databases of all forced outages during the 2011 freeze and of all outages or output reductions from Feb. 10 to 19this year.
The bulk of generators with repeat issues — 93% — are fueled by natural gas, although natural gas-powered generators also made up a substantial majority of total units on the ERCOT grid a decade ago because many of the wind farms in the state had yet to be built.
This year, generators powered by natural gas and wind accounted for 47% and 43%, respectively, of 585 units that experienced service interruptions. In terms of megawatts, however, the issues at natural gas-powered units had an outsized impact on generation because they typically have higher capacities.
Calpine and NRG own the largest numbers of generators that experienced problems during both years, according to the ERCOT data, at 20 and 17, respectively. Meanwhile, a solar unit owned by utility company Engie, which employs UT’s Webber as chief science and technology officer, is listed in the data for reduced output during February’s freeze but didn’t exist 10 years ago.
Operators of power plants that experienced repeat generation issues, and who responded to recent inquiries from the Statesman, have disputed the notion that they didn’t take winterization seriously enough in the wake of the 2011 freeze. Representatives of Calpine, which had the largest number of repeat outages or service interruptions, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“What we took coming out of 2011 was that there needed to be robust weatherization, (and) I think that we had robust weatherization” going into February’s freeze, said Chris Moser, NRG’s executive vice president of operations.
The bulk of NRG facilities performed solidly during the emergency, Moser said. But he also described February’s cold snap as “epic” in terms of depth and duration, saying it could be that equipment “was simply not (designed for) the weather that we saw” in some instances.
Variations of that theme were echoed by other power plant operators.
Vistra spokeswoman Meranda Cohn said some of her company’s units experienced weather-related problems “after running during extended, unrelenting temperatures that are beyond their design basis,” which she said is generally for a minimum of 10-15 degrees. About a dozen Vistra generation units had repeat outages or service reductions this year.
“In 2021, we were dealing with colder temperatures for longer durations (than in 2011) and many of our plants stood up well through the first days of the extreme cold and during the initial outages,” Cohn said.
Operators also cited some other issues that had little to do with the impact of the weather on their own plants, such as freeze-related difficulty obtaining enough natural gas from producers to keep gas-fired generators running.
In addition, the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Buchanan Dam hydroelectric unit is in the ERCOT outage databases for both years, even though an LCRA spokeswoman told the Statesman that it experienced a non-weather-related equipment problem on Feb. 11, before the severe cold hit, and was back online shortly thereafter and for the duration of the emergency. Not counting the Buchanan Dam generator, however, five LCRA units still had outages or service reductions in both years.
Regardless, Mark Jones, senior research fellow at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, said the primary explanation cited by power plant operators for the outages this year — the extreme cold — doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.
““The temperature is somewhat irrelevant (because) the technology exists to weatherize (power plants) far below those that hit Texas,” Jones said. Plants “don’t go out in Michigan, Minnesota or North Dakota just because it gets cold.”
Lack of regulatory willpower?
ERCOT has said the Texas power grid overall was only minutes away from total failure at one point during the freeze — a catastrophe that might have hobbled the grid for months — as major generation units went out across the state and demand for electricity soared.
The agency recently released a preliminary report on the causes of the plant outages, although the document aggregates findings that were submitted by plant operators into a handful of broad categories and doesn’t contain detailed information.
ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, have denied requests from the Statesman and other media outlets for winterization plans submitted by individual plants and for details regarding the problems many of them experienced during the February freeze. Among other contentions, the agencies have cited confidentiality of information submitted by private companies and the prospect that certain documents could aid terrorists by revealing technical details of the power grid’s vulnerabilities.
Instead, both agencies are seeking opinions from the Texas attorney general’s office as to whether they’re required to provide the information, although ERCOT has said it plans to ask plant operators to voluntarily waive confidentiality agreements so that the causes of individual outages can be made public.
The aggregate report that ERCOT has released lists “weather related” issues — such as frozen equipment or ice accumulation — as the top category cited for plant outages during the Feb. 14-19 grid emergency, accounting for 54% of the 51,173 megawatts offline at the height of the crisis. That figure climbs to nearly 63% when capacity is subtracted that the report says was offline prior to Feb. 8 for various reasons.
An additional 14% — 6,986 megawatts out of the 51,173 total — were attributed to “equipment issues,” meaning “failures or malfunctions not explicitly attributed to cold weather.” Limitations on the ability to obtain enough fuel to operate plants during the storms contributed to 12% of the outages, according to the report.
Despite those findings, UT’s Webber said he considers the underlying explanation for the repeat plant outages and the emergency overall to be much more fundamental — a lack of regulatory willpower in Texas to force plants to prepare for the weather extremes that he said a changing climate is making more common.
“The lack of planning for the reality of the world was the root cause” of the calamity, Webber said.