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A winter storm will hit Texas — bringing back memories of last year’s power grid failure

Power lines are seen after winter weather caused electricity blackouts in Houston on Feb. 17, 2021. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

Temperatures in wide swaths of Texas are forecast to nosedive in the coming days, triggering concerns about the state’s natural gas supply as well as memories of last year’s power grid failure that led to widespread outages and hundreds of deaths.

In advance of the second Arctic blast to hit Texas this season, the state grid reported Tuesday that all of the electric generation units and transmission facilities have met new standards set after the freeze in February 2021. The frigid conditions prompting the National Weather Service to issue winter storm watches from Central Texas to the Mexican border will be one of the first tests of the updated system in the face of snow, sleet and freezing rain from the Lone Star State through the Mid-Atlantic.

This week’s storm, although not forecast to be nearly as severe as last year’s, will also test the weatherization of the state’s natural gas system, largely relied on for power and heat generation.

After last year’s deadly storm left millions of Texans freezing in the dark for days, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, made improvements to its power grid. Now, the council said, 321 out of 324 electric generation units and transmission facilities have fully passed inspection to meet new regulations.

“The Texas electric grid is more prepared for winter operations than ever before,” interim ERCOT chief executive Brad Jones said in a statement.

Ten years ago, 241 Texas power plants couldn’t take the cold. Dozens of them failed again this year.

But Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, cautioned that although the electrical grid is better equipped for winter storms, the natural gas side of Texas’s energy system was not upgraded and could freeze in extreme conditions — which could strain the whole system. Companies that operate the natural gas systems that froze last February, cutting off supply to power plants, do not face the same regulations as those that provide power to homes and businesses.

“It’s like fixing your car, but the tank is empty,” Webber said.

Already below-normal temperatures caused some natural gas production equipment to freeze two weeks ago in the Permian Basin region of West Texas, where Bloomberg reported gas production plunged to its lowest levels since last year’s historic freeze.

On Wednesday, pipeline operator Kinder Morgan warned customers that “potential exists for supply shortfalls due to freeze‐offs” ahead of this upcoming cold onslaught.

However, this freeze, when temperatures may plunge to the teens in some areas near the southern border, will not be a repeat of last year’s winter weather, unusual for its extensive damage and duration.

“I’m not really too panicky,” Webber said. “But I will be curious to see how the gas systems perform. That’s the weak link in the system, and all eyes should be on that.”

Meanwhile, cities including Austin have told residents to prepare their homes, and the state said hospitals should review their cold-weather plans.

Meteorologist for Texas grid operator warned of the winter storm’s severity

Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said this week’s weather will be “nothing like 2021 for most people,” forecasting that people in areas with precipitation expected are more likely to encounter dangerous conditions if they drive than possible problems with their power.

“If South Texas gets a lot of freezing rain and sleet, it’s going to be very treacherous out there,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “It would actually be a good idea to make preparations now to make sure you don’t have to get out in the next couple days just in case.”

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