PUC, ERCOT promise ‘lights will stay on’ this winter

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KXAN file photo (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Public Utility Commission and ERCOT said Texans do not need to worry about the power shutting off this winter, after the majority of its power generators have already winterized equipment.

“The ERCOT grid is stronger and more reliable than ever…the lights will stay on,” said PUC Chairman Peter Lake.

December 1 marked a deadline for all power plants to submit winter weather readiness reports, a new requirement the PUC passed to help avoid another grid meltdown. Only 13 out of 850 power facilities failed to present weather readiness reports by the deadline — those 13 plants represent less than one percent of the state’s total electricity capacity. 

ERCOT began inspecting facilities the day the rule was enforced and is planning on completing inspections by Dec. 29. So far, it has inspected 55 generator units out of 300 — those generators accounted for 85% of the power lost last February. 

Any facility that does not meet specifications will pay $1 million per day, per incident. 

Brad Jones, the interim CEO of ERCOT said inspectors are checking things like wind breaks, thermal blankets, and heat tracing in place for pipes — all measures that are critical for ensuring facilities can continue operation during extreme winter weather. 

“No other power grid has made as remarkable changes and as such an incredibly short amount of time as we have, and we will continue to improve our grid in our market,” Lake said. 

However, there’s a key aspect PUC can’t control, natural gas, which is regulated by the Railroad Commission.

Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas-Austin,said the power sector and natural gas are two parts of the same puzzle.

“That was the first big domino to fall was the gas system. And then that domino fell and knocked over the power system,” Webber said. “And there’s no guarantee that the gas system will perform because the Railroad Commission hasn’t really given the same kind of effort or scrutiny, and doesn’t give it the same regulatory touch. So we might have power plants that are ready to work but can’t get gas because the gas system failed — that’s what happened in February.”

The Railroad Commission only recently announced requirements for some of Texas’ top natural gas suppliers to weatherize. The commission voted Nov. 30 to require many, but not all, natural gas producers to weatherize and deemed those that are “critical” must be able to keep power on in the event of rolling blackouts. Webber isn’t sure that is enough. 

“We haven’t guaranteed that the fuel is not going to freeze. So you might have a car that’s ready to go but if the fuel tank is frozen, the car still won’t work,” Webber said.

The PUC is also set to have a meeting Friday about wholesale changes to the electric market and the grid. Multiple municipalities, including Austin, are submitting a “collective comment” on what they want to see changed. Travis County commissioners also signed on with the comment, which includes five recommendations.

  • Increase the use of energy efficiency and demand response programs
  • Value and encourage a diversified resource base to provide a variety of grid benefits and services
  • Minimize the severity and disproportionate impacts of power outages on different customer types
  • Consider expanding Texans’ access to reliable electricity by connecting with adjacent grids
  • Ensure there is a robust and inclusive market redesign stakeholder engagement process

We will stream the briefing in this story, the KXAN app and KXAN Facebook page.

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