What’s being done to keep the lights on this winter? Here’s what we know

HOUSTON – Ten months ago, millions of homes and businesses were plunged into darkness and more than 100 Texans lost their lives when our power grid failed at the height of a historic winter storm.

Since then, new laws and regulations have been put in place, but are we better prepared for this winter?

“I wasn’t prepared for three straight days of no power,” said Mike Anderson.

Anderson’s home was heavily damaged last February when a lack of power caused pipes to freeze then burst.

“It was like a bad movie. It was a progression; boom, boom, boom. (I) went in the bathroom, (and saw water) coming out the bathroom, (and) went in my son’s room (and saw water) coming out of there,” said Anderson.

Anderson said three pipes burst and flooded his home. He said he and his family spent 10 days in an RV before moving to an apartment.

“I have an immunocompromised son who has a chronic illness, which is a big concern for us,” said Anderson.

Ten months later, and the family is still fighting with their insurance company to complete repairs on the home.

“It’s getting to be Christmas, you know, they really want to be home for Christmas. I had to tell my son the other night, ‘Son, it’s not happening. We can’t do it,’” said Anderson.

Home damage from winter storm. (KPRC)
Home damage from winter storm. (KPRC)
Home damage from winter storm. (KPRC)
Home damage from winter storm. (KPRC)
Home damage from winter storm. (KPRC)

Like millions of other Texans, Anderson’s family is paying the price because our state’s power grid failed. Winter starts next week, but are we better prepared?

“We’re a lot better off than we were during winter storm Uri,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt/(R) District 7. “It’s not perfect yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Bettencourt’s optimism comes from the Public Utility Commission of Texas putting winterization rules in place to help ensure power plants and transmission companies keep running in extreme cold.

“Beyond that, ERCOT will be conducting inspections to confirm that our power plant fleet is winterized for this winter,” said PUC Chairman, Peter Lake during a Dec. 8 news conference.

ERCOT’s interim CEO, Brad Jones, said the agency created a “planning and weatherization” group that plans to inspect 300 plants and 21 transmission providers by Dec. 29.

“Those inspections will comprise 85% of the lost megawatt-hours during the storm,” said Jones during the Dec. 8 news conference.

A report filed with the PUC shows all but one company provided winterization plans by the Dec. 1 deadline.

Bettencourt also said communication has been improved to make sure power providers don’t accidentally cut power to natural gas operations needed to keep the lights on. During the February storm, the heads of transmission and distribution companies reported not having up-to-date information as to which natural gas lines were providing fuel to power plants and therefore cut power to some of those lines.

“I’m not confident at all,” said State Sen. John Whitmire/(D) District 15.

Whitmire is concerned because close to half of our state’s power comes from natural gas and is overseen by the Texas Railroad Commission.

Natural gas operations took a big hit in February, but the Railroad Commission likely won’t have mandatory winterization rules in place until 2023.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, “87% of unplanned generation outages due to fuel issues were related to natural gas,” and “natural gas fuel supply issues were caused by natural gas production declines, with 43.3% of natural gas production declines caused by freezing temperatures and weather, and 21.5 percent caused by midstream, wellhead or gathering facility power losses, which could be attributed either to rolling blackouts or weather-related outages such as downed power lines.” You can read FERC’s full report on the 2021 winter storm here.

“I can honestly say we’re no better prepared for this winter’s freezes than we were during the last one,” said Whitmire.

RRC officials have pushed back against concerns natural gas operations aren’t ready for extreme cold. Both the RRC and the Texas Oil and Gas Assoc. report even without mandatory rules in winterization work is being done. TXOGA recently launched a #winterready page on its website.

During a September hearing before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, the executive director of the RRC, Wei Wang, explained the commission will complete the mapping of Texas’ natural gas network by September 2022. Following the completion of this mapping project, the RRC will then designate which operations are critical to supplying our power grid. This designation adopted by the PUC and RRC will ensure these operations will continue to operate during emergencies and will not be allowed to apply for an exemption from future winterization requirements. RRC officials said 180 days after the mapping project is complete they will adopt mandatory weatherization rules.

RRC officials reported inspectors have also visited 2,550 natural gas operations to oversee current winterization efforts.

“As a combination of all these efforts, the ERCOT grid is stronger and more reliable than ever,” said Lake.

Mike Anderson certainly hopes so.

“I’m nervous, we can’t do this again. I mean, we can’t go through this again,” said Anderson.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”