Gas failures drove winter storm power outages

·3 min read

Jul. 20—A University of Texas report focused on February's winter storm describes massive natural gas failures — in both distribution and storage — as the primary cause for statewide power outages during the storm.

The report, produced by the University of Texas, Austin Energy Insitute and partially funded by the Public Utilities Commission, found all energy producers failed. Still, it found significant issues with the natural gas supply, including a failure to weatherize power plants and distribution systems.

The report flies in the face of Gov. Greg Abbott's insistence that the power shortages were the fault of renewable energy. The Texas Legislature approved Senate Bill 3, which was signed into law by Abbott and aimed to prioritize power plant shutdowns and penalize energy providers for failing to meet demand and creating an alert system to let Texans know of imminent outages.

There is also a stark comparison between 2021 and similar storms in 2011 and 1989 — loss of life. The 2021 storm is estimated to have killed more than 200 people. On July 14, the Texas Department of State Health Services issued an update that noted at least one death from Hunt County. An analysis by BuzzFeed News places the total at more than 700.

However, the UT report says the most significant difference between past major winter storms was that no deaths were attributable to 1989 and 2011 events.

"But these were otherwise very different events," the report states. "The extent and duration of the outages were far greater in 2021. We are unaware of any loss of life being linked to the electrical outages in 1989 and 2011."

The UT report also found:

—"Natural gas production, storage, and distribution facilities failed to provide the full amount of fuel demanded by natural gas power plants. Failures included direct freezing of natural gas equipment and failing to inform their electric utilities of critical electrically-driven components. Dry gas production dropped 85% from early February to February 16, with up to 2/3 of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage."

—"Days before ERCOT called for blackouts, natural gas was already being curtailed to some natural gas consumers, including power plants."

In Greenville, thousands were without power or suffered through rolling blackouts when GEUS's power plant was forced offline because of natural gas shortages. Thousands more were without power in other parts of Hunt County.

The storm resulted in sky-high prices for natural gas and electricity. In Greenville, GEUS had to borrow $25 million to cover its costs to buy power. The report estimates electric providers lost billions of dollars from the storm. The state's gross domestic product finished last in the first quarter of 2021 — partially due to the storm.

During the winter storm, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and natural gas, ordered homeowners to receive supply first; at the same time, concerns were raised about the integrity of pipelines with a surge in demand.

The report does note failures in renewables — primarily due to a failure to winterize wind turbines — there is considerable discussion about natural gas disruptions. In the Permian Basin, which produced 50% of the state's natural gas, the winter storm wreaked havoc on production capacity. After winter storms in 1989 and 2011 caused problems with natural gas distribution, efforts to winterize equipment were recommended but never implemented.

There are no policy recommendations in the report, but it does note communication failures between weather forecasters and ERCOT.

"The internal meteorological communications reviewed appeared to describe a very difficult storm to predict," the report said. "The storm intensity wasn't fully realized until just before it happened."

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