Texas Freeze: ERCOT can do better than counting on failure-prone Gas

Texas, along with most of the country, is about to get hit with an Arctic blast that will plunge temperatures to extreme lows. But the all-too-recent memory of Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 causing rolling blackouts, hundreds of deaths, and billions in unexpected utility bills leaves Texans more worried than the rest of the country about their power staying on next week.

Unfortunately, their worries are real despite Governor Abbott’s insistence that all will be fine. Almost three years after that traumatic event, Texas’ state legislature and regulators have done little to insulate their constituents for the next big freeze beyond requiring weatherization inspections, a woefully insufficient measure.

Instead, Texas policymakers used the tragedy to subsidize expensive and unreliable fossil fuels. The state legislature’s main response to Uri was authorizing billions in state money to double down on the main cause of its last disaster: natural gas power plants.

Gas plants are “disproportionately vulnerable to failure”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric AEP +1.4%Reliability Corporation found that Texas’ over-reliance on natural gas was the main cause of blackouts during Winter Storm Uri – more than 80% of ERCOT’s natural gas powered backup generators failed, prolonging outages while residential electricity demand spiked 250% higher than normal because people cranked up the heat.

Gas GAS -1.9% generation has become our grid’s hidden Achilles Heel: A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found gas plants are “disproportionately vulnerable to failure” in extreme temperatures and were responsible for 56% of the capacity knocked offline during Uri. The problem is that extreme cold can freeze gas plant equipment like valves, water lines, sensors and inlet air systems and embrittle rubber and silicone seals.

Fortunately, the market forces that Texas Republicans tried hard to suppress are too strong, and ended up saving ERCOT during last summer’s extreme heat waves, when the state was hotter than 99% of the Earth’s surface.

Because of the free market orientation of Texas’ electricity system, it produces more electricity from renewables than any other state and is second only to California when it comes to grid scale battery capacity. And as I outlined in an earlier article, these clean resources kept the grid float and Texans cool in unbearable heat.


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