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Exclusive: ERCOT said grid was prepared for winter weeks before Texas power crisis

Asher Price
Austin American-Statesman

As recently as one month ago, operators of the state electric grid offered a sunny assessment about the preparedness of Texas power plants for winter storms, according to documents obtained by the American-Statesman.

The “review of plants indicates that the majority of plants are following their weatherization plans,” says the Extreme Weather Reliability Assessment, filed with the Texas Public Utility Commission on Jan. 15 by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator.

"We studied a range of potential risks under both normal and extreme conditions," Pete Warnken, ERCOT's manager of resource adequacy, said in its Seasonal Assessment for Resource Adequacy prepared in November, "and believe there is sufficient generation to adequately serve our customers."

In the past week, at least 185 power plants, generating everything from gas to wind power, have faltered or completely failed amid plunging temperatures, leading to widespread, dayslong electric outages that left millions of Texans hungry, cold and desperate.

Officials with the state grid operator have said the winter storm that slammed Texas last weekend was unusually brutal, leading to unforeseeable consequences.

“There isn’t a capacity shortage,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said Wednesday. “It was a problem of capacity knocked out by an extraordinary event.”

More:Gov. Abbott makes ERCOT reform emergency legislative item amid blackouts

Recommendations but no requirements

The Statesman obtained the document from the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid operator, after asking whether the state agency mandates that utilities take any measures to winter-proof their facilities.

But the document is full of recommendations — not mandates. For example, it outlines “Recommended Steps to Prepare Generators for Extreme Weather” that the grid operator shares with utilities. A state rule requires ERCOT only to describe "information regarding steps to be taken by power generation companies and utilities to prepare their assets for extreme weather events."

The revelations about the document come as attorneys prepare to file a series of class-action lawsuits against ERCOT on behalf of Texas businesses and residents and as Gov. Greg Abbott, facing a political crisis of his own, has called for members of the ERCOT leadership to resign.

“Because ERCOT's analysis in conducting site visits is necessarily limited to determining whether each plant operator has followed the plant's weatherization procedures,” the ERCOT report says, “ERCOT takes no opinion on whether the measures taken by any particular generator are sufficient to prevent any outage of the unit during certain extreme weather conditions.

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“However, ERCOT's review of the plants suggests that these generators have made progress in addressing weatherization deficiencies. Generators are incorporating improvements identified in weatherization workshops and addressing recommendations from prior site visits. ERCOT expects that the units visited would be better equipped to withstand extreme conditions such as those experienced in February 2011” — when Texas suffered rolling power outages as a consequence of another winter storm.

The president and CEO of ERCOT responds to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's call for the power grid leaders to resign In a media briefing on Feb. 17.

COVID-19 derailed on-site inspections

Every year, ERCOT, the nonprofit quasi-state agency that operates the grid, must file reports with the PUC addressing whether generators have complied with winter weatherization plans — including “an assessment of the reliability and adequacy of the ERCOT system during extremely cold or extremely hot weather conditions.”

In a typical year, ERCOT inspectors specializing in weatherization preparations make in-person visits to about 100 generation facilities, especially to ones that have had suffered from freezing equipment in the past or to new facilities, Dan Woodfin, head of operations systems of ERCOT, said this week.

But with the COVID-19 outbreak, the visits this year were tabletop exercises, conducted online.

“In all cases, ERCOT's goal was to determine if plants had implemented the weatherization plans they had provided,” the assessment says. “As part of these visits, ERCOT asked to see any checklists of elements that needed to be protected, whether such work had been completed, and whether procedures were in place to ensure that the checklists were followed.”

According to the document, the inspectors’ examinations included the following questions and commands:

  • Identify the cause of the unit trip during cold weather events, if applicable. Physically examine element. Has the plant taken steps to ensure reoccurrence?
  • Did this unit experience any equipment freeze issues due to frozen equipment during winter 2019-2020?
  • Does the plant have a checklist of critical elements to be protected?
  • Have all work orders related to weatherization been completed?
  • Has all insulation been inspected during the fall?
  • What improvements has the plant made based on experiences in recent cold weather events?
  • Does the plant have an extreme weather procedure for increased operator rounds?
  • Are winter weather supplies listed on the checklist and are they stored on-site?
  • Does the plant do an annual extreme cold weather drill or training?

The ERCOT report says grid operators routinely recommended that plant operators:

  • Identify critical components that could trip or derate the unit and mitigation measures to prevent from freezing such as heat trace testing, insulation inspection and wind breaks where necessary.
  • Conduct annual tabletop or plant drill for an extreme cold weather event with records of attendance.
  • Maintain records detailing when extreme cold weather procedures were put into place.
  • Incorporate lessons learned into plant weatherization plan.

The grid operator also suggests utilities "conduct maintenance and inspection of its freeze protection elements on a timely and repetitive basis"; "inspect and maintain each unit's thermal insulation"; "erect adequate wind breaks and enclosures where needed"; "develop and annually conduct winter-specific and plant-specific operator awareness and maintenance training"; and "take steps to ensure that winterization supplies and equipment are in place before the winter season, that adequate staffing is in place for cold weather events, and that preventative action in anticipation of such events is taken in a timely manner."

Vehicles drive down East 7th Street as power outages left most of East Austin in the dark on Wednesday night.

A sunny seasonal outlook?

In retrospect, the ERCOT forecasts for this winter in another document also appear optimistic.

In the Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy for the Winter 2020/2021, prepared in November, ERCOT officials said they anticipated “there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve system-wide forecasted peak demand this winter season, December 2020 - February 2021.”

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In the document, ERCOT officials say that “with a normal outage rate and under expected weather conditions," ERCOT should have "sufficient generation capacity to serve forecasted peak demand.”

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas manages the flow of electric power to 90 percent of the state. It's facility in Taylor is shown off during a tour in 2018.