An unusual weather event and rolling blackouts – what lessons were learned? Apparently none.
The winter freeze greatly strained the ability of the Texas electric utilities to provide reliable power to their customers. Record and near-record low temperatures were felt throughout the state resulting in a significantly increased demand for electrical power.
At the same time that demand was increasing, weather-related equipment malfunctions were causing generating units to trip off the line. As a result, the state suffered widespread rolling blackouts and near loss of the entire ERCOT electric grid.
The extreme weather pointed out several weak areas in power plant operations. Inoperative or inadequate heat tracing systems and inadequate insulation on instrumentation sensing lines seemed to be the most common technical equipment problem encountered during the freeze.
Whether the corrective actions being implemented by the utilities are sufficient to prevent future freeze-related power plant failures, only direct experience with another deep freeze will ascertain.
You’d think this report was about the rolling blackout endured by a large swath of Texas when temperatures plunged and power plants failed this past February, but it isn’t. This report was dated November 1990 and is referring to the record freeze of late December 1989.
The lone remaining copy of this report, “Electric Utility Response to the Winter Freeze of December 21 to December 23, 1989”, at PUC resides in its library north of the Capitol apparently unread and unheeded. The descriptions of conditions in the old report — as well as the power companies’ explanations for what went wrong and how they intended to fix it — contain enough similarities to the rolling blackouts of two months ago to raise questions about how much the industry and its regulators have learned from the past.
Although state regulators are charged with overseeing many aspects of the energy market, requiring utilities to be weatherized isn’t one of them. When the PUC compiled its suggestions in 1990, there was nothing to make sure they would be followed.
One result of the February 2011 power shortages is a bill introduced by state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) that would require power generation companies to produce a weatherization plan that is available to the public and reviewed regularly by the Public Utility Commission.
Perhaps this time, we have learned a lesson. Letting industry regulate itself is not always in the consumers’ best interest.
By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.