- Stronger weatherization standards for the gas and electric sectors are needed to maintain reliability and avoid repeating a grid failure that left millions in Texas and the Midwest without power during a February cold snap, according to a joint report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).
- The report echoes the findings of a similar inquiry following a 2011 Texas freeze, which were eventually translated into voluntary recommendations for plant owners. "I guarantee you that this time FERC will not permit these recommendations to be ignored or watered down," Chairman Richard Glick said at the commission's open meeting on Thursday, where the report was presented.
- The report also laid most blame for the grid failure on the natural gas system, from producers to power plants. More than 1,000 generating units were affected by the cold snap, and 57% of them were gas-fired and primarily struggling to fuel their plants, according to the analysis.
The February 2021 cold snap was not the first time U.S. power plants and gas transportation systems failed under extreme cold conditions, the joint report makes clear. Rather, it was the fourth time in the last decade that cold weather "jeopardized bulk-power system reliability due to unplanned cold weather-related generation outages."
Along with this year's polar vortex, there were similar events in 2011, 2014 and 2018, the report found, impacting power generators in Texas, along with the South, Central and Eastern portions of the U.S.
"We can't think about these as black swan events anymore," Advanced Energy Economy Managing Director and General Counsel Jeff Dennis said.
Following the 2011 event, a FERC-NERC report recommended development of winterization standards but NERC ultimately declined to act on that. Glick committed to stricter requirements at Thursday's open meeting, and said new rules would cast a wide net.
"All types of generation including natural gas, nuclear and wind, experience problems due to the extreme cold and they should all winterize their facilities," Glick said. He added, however, that the report's findings make clear arguments that renewables caused the grid failure are untrue.
"Today's report makes it clear the facts don't support the rhetoric," he said.
The report found 1,045 individual generating units experienced 4,124 outages, derates or failures to start, "of which 604 were natural-gas fired generators." There were 285 wind units that experienced the same problems, 58 coal, 22 solar and 4 nuclear, the report noted.
Generators could recover costs of weatherization
The preliminary report makes nine key recommendations, including requiring generators to "identify and protect cold weather-critical components," and to build new or retrofit existing units to "operate to specific ambient temperatures and weather based on extreme temperature and weather data." Plants should also be required to take into account effects of wind and precipitation in winterization plans, the report says.
"There could be the possibility of million-dollar-a-day violation penalties in the future," Dennis said.
The report also recommends generators be allowed to recover the costs of weatherization.
NERC could take up the report's recommendations on its own and begin a stakeholder process to develop new rules, said Dennis. If it does not act, FERC could issue an order directing the reliability organization to develop new rules.
As for the gas system, which NERC does not oversee, the report recommends Congress, state legislatures and jurisdictional regulators require gas facilities to "have cold weather preparedness plans, including measures to prepare to operate during a weather emergency."
The preliminary report recommends implementing the new requirements before the 2023-2024 winter. A final report is due in November.
Report highlights gas-power interdependence
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) doesn't comment on the development of standards, but Aidan Tuohy, program manager of grid operations and planning at the nonprofit, said in an email that recent events "show the importance of comprehensive scenario development for resource adequacy that covers the range of possible operating conditions in the current and future climate."
EPRI recently launched a Resource Adequacy for a Decarbonized Future initiative that will model and assess the implications of extreme weather, including cold snaps, heat waves and other weather events.
Ensuring a resilient grid will require "an ability to characterize the relationships between extreme weather, supply and demand resources and gas and electric networks," Tuohy said.
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, did not comment on the report or its recommendations.
The head of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, Chairman Peter Lake, said in a statement that he welcomed the findings of the joint report as regulators work with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state's grid operator, on "market and infrastructure solutions intended to prevent a recurrence."
The joint report looks at the period of Feb. 8-20, which saw extreme cold and precipitation across parts of ERCOT, the Southwest Power Pool and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. The most severe impacts were felt Feb. 15-18.
In total, the report found cold weather led to the loss of 61,800 MW of electric generation.
The cold also impacted gas production, particularly in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Combined daily production declined more than 50%, compared with gas production from earlier in the month, the report found.
"During the event, shut-ins and unplanned outages of natural gas wellheads, as well as unplanned outages of gathering and processing facilities, resulted in a decline of natural gas available for supply and transportation to many natural gas-fired generating units in the south-central U.S.," the report concluded.
The report highlights the inter-dependency of the gas and electric power systems, particularly in Texas and the south-central U.S. Gas fuels power plants, while gas producers rely on electrical power to process and transport the fuel.
"Careful planning and coordination to manage the needs of the natural gas and electric systems in light of this 'interdependency' is important so that both systems are ultimately reliable for consumers, especially during cold weather conditions when the demand for natural gas and electricity are at their highest levels."