Gov. Greg Abbott wants power companies to “winterize.” Texas’ track record won’t make that easy.
Retroactively equipping power plants to withstand cold temperatures is likely to be very difficult and costly, energy experts say. Building energy infrastructure to perform in winter conditions is easier — and cheaper.
Winter Storm 2021
As Texas faced record-low temperatures in February 2021 and snow and ice made roads impassable, the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply, leaving millions without access to electricity. As the blackouts extended from hours to days, top state lawmakers called for investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and Texans demanded accountability for the disaster. The Texas Tribune covered the impact of the storm in real time and continues to bring accountability coverage as officials address the issues exposed by the storm.More in this series
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Winterize. That’s the directive Gov. Greg Abbott gave to power companies and lawmakers Thursday when he called for a law and funding to better prepare Texas’ essential power infrastructure for the kind of extreme winter weather that created multiple crises this week.
Energy experts said that in some cases, retrofitting plants to withstand cold could be extremely difficult and expensive in Texas. Many of those plants already skimped on such upgrades due to the infrequency of prolonged and widespread subfreezing temperatures in the state. That’s despite a 2011 winter storm that also caused power outages.
Building new “winterized” infrastructure, though, often adds little to the overall cost of a new project, experts say.
“Our planning is based on outdated weather patterns, and if you use outdated weather, you never expect to freeze,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Millions of people across Texas lost power during this week’s storm, and some died in the extreme cold without heat. On Friday, power was restored to most of the state, although about 140,000 customers are still facing localized outages, according to data compiled by PowerOutage.us.
Power outages began early Monday, when the amount of power available to the grid that covers most of Texas began to rapidly drop offline. Natural gas plants, utility scale wind turbines, coal and nuclear plants alike began to trip — many lacked the investments necessary to keep them online during low temperatures.
That forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, to order transmission utilities to start what was supposed to be “rolling” outages for customers. The goal was to prevent the entire grid from being knocked offline, which, officials said could have left Texans without power for weeks if not months. The rolling outages, though, lasted for days for millions of people.
There’s no regulatory requirement to prepare power infrastructure for such extremely low temperatures — something Abbott called for on Thursday. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., is also developing mandatory standards for “winterizing” energy infrastructure, a spokesperson said.
During a Friday press conference, Bill Magness, president and CEO of ERCOT, called Abbott’s emergency legislative item to winterize power plants “a good idea,” and said ERCOT would implement any changes the Legislature directed them to make.
“Texas can't afford for this to happen again,” Magness said. “There are a lot of ideas about how to make that different, and we want to participate in the process.”
Winterizing costly to play catch-up
Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, has an idea on where to begin:
“The natural gas transmission system would be my first choice as a place to look,” he said, noting that the majority of the state’s grid in the winter relies on the resource.
It’s also the resource that, during this crisis, failed in the “most spectacular fashion” as Webber put it. From the wells where companies produce natural gas, to the systems to deliver it and run it in gas-fired power plants, the system was not built for the low temperatures — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
“You can absolutely winterize [the energy sector in Texas],” Webber said.
Webber said upgrades to natural gas plants should be flexible — temporarily enclosed in a structure to keep heat in during the winter and removed to keep the plant cool during the summer. He acknowledges it will come at a cost, but, he said, “it means you can operate when times are tough.”
Still, it’s going to be difficult to retrofit gas-fired plants in Texas, said Morris Greenberg, senior manager of North America Power Analytics for S&P Global Platts. That’s because the plants are built to maximize profit.
“Retrofitting would be a questionable, challenging solution,” Greenberg said. “Most gas plants are built as lean as possible.”
Abbott, in his call to upgrade the power sector, did not specifically point to natural gas production as an area that needed to winterize. But preventing frozen wellheads is one area experts say is ripe for reform, since the cost to build a new well with equipement to withstand the cold is relatively low, and the payoff high. The shortage of natural gas supply was a major constraint during the crisis because gas-fired plants didn’t have enough fuel to generate power.
Retrofitting existing natural gas wells would be extremely difficult and probably cost prohibitive, according to Parker Fawcett, a natural gas analyst for S&P Global Platts. But Fawcett said starting to build new wells in Texas with winterization technology is reasonable. It would cost around $20,000 to $50,000 more per well, compared to the current cost of $5 to 9 million in Texas, depending on where it’s drilled, Fawcett estimated.
The state’s grid also saw wind turbines go offline this week. While ERCOT did not expect to have very much wind energy available during the peak of winter energy demand, experts said that wind turbines, too, could be winterized.
Retrofitting the blades of wind turbines with special coatings and heating elements is not a burdensome cost to generators, energy experts said — likely under 10% of the total cost of the turbine.
Nevertheless, few operators do it, not just in Texas but generally, said Krane, of Rice’s Baker Institute. That’s because most states and countries rely on wind power as a cheap additional source of energy rather than a primary source. The way most markets are functioning right now, Krane said, “it’s just nice to have when it’s there.”
For any upgrade or retrofitting — whether natural gas, wind, coal, or nuclear — winterization is going to be expensive due to the lack of investment the state’s generators and producers of energy have made into preparing for a storm like this in the past, experts said.
“It’s like insurance that you’re almost never going to use,” Krane said.
Though, that attitude in avoiding cost, he said, is what did end up costing Texans.
“After going through this, I think people would be OK with that," he said.
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