New U of Texas Study Sheds Light on Winter Blackouts

July 14, 2021

Spoiler: it wasn’t the Wind Turbines.

Above, KTBC Austin report, below, Houston Chronicle:

Houston Chronicle:

The failure by natural gas producers to supply adequate fuel to power plants “exacerbated” the electricity shortage during the February freeze, according to a new report from the University of Texas at Austin.

A dozen researchers from UT’s Energy Institute found that while all power sources — including coal, wind, solar and nuclear — faltered during the winter storm, failures to weatherize natural gas wells and ensure electricity to critical equipment compounded the catastrophic power failure. The storm and blackouts killed at least 200 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage across Texas.

“Days before ERCOT called for blackouts, natural gas was already being curtailed to some natural gas consumers, including power plants,” the report’s authors wrote. “Natural gas output started to decline rapidly before the electricity forced outages began early on February 15, with production declining about 700 million cubic feet per day from February 8-14. This decline is likely due to weather-related factors and not a loss of power at natural gas facilities.”

The 101-page report didn’t break new ground on what caused the widespread Texas blackouts, but it provided more details and a solid baseline of facts as policymakers debate ways to improve the electricity grid and natural gas system to prevent future blackouts. UT’s report was published on the same day as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas unveiled a roadmap to improve the state’s power grid.

“I think it’s a really good step forward,” said Jay Zarnikau, one of the report’s authors. “It’s not necessarily going to address all failures identified in our report, but I think it was a good roadmap.” 

UT researchers looked at public data and legislative testimony, but also were given access to confidential data from ERCOT, including the performance of certain power plants, communications about the winter storm and ERCOT’s emergency program that automatically shut off power to some natural gas producers. The study was funded in part by the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Researchers found that frozen wells caused natural gas production to fall by 85 percent in the days leading up to Feb. 16, with up to two-thirds of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage. Researchers looked at a sample of 27 natural gas processing plants, and found that as many as 18 of them had zero output at the worst of the storm. Natural gas producers are not required to weatherize their equipment in Texas.

Below, WFAA report fills in some blanks.


5 Responses to “New U of Texas Study Sheds Light on Winter Blackouts”

  1. John Swallow Says:

    This below runs counter to what the media was wanting people to believe that the wind worked just fine, it was the gas powered generating power houses that were to blame for million having no electricity.

    “After imperiling the grid with their wind turbines and solar panels, Big Green is gleefully distributing talking points to the press about natural gas plants failing to keep up with demand.”
    Holman Jenkins tells us why in another article at the WSJ:
    “Thanks to the Clean Air Act, pipeline compressors run on electricity now rather than natural gas. So blackouts meant to conserve electricity can actually reduce it, by knocking gas-burning generators offline.”

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The wind turbines weren’t winterized (like the ones that work just fine in Alaska), but they weren’t expected to make up much of the power supply at that time of year. Both the gas supply and the thermal power plants failed proximally due to lack of winterization, and more generally due to lack of enforceable regulation.

      The plants didn’t pay for winterization (recommended after a similar 2011* grid failure), because unlike grids in other parts of the country where they pay extra for a reliability cushion, there was no motivation for them to do so. Instead, as more power went offline, the “free market” solution was for the remaining producers to charge skyrocketing prices, AKA what the market would bear. The system worked as designed for private investors; citizens and consumers are distant secondary considerations.

      If you want to know understand the grid, go to where the wonks are, not the frickin’ WSJ or other non-technical media. It may take a while to become fluent in the issues (regulation, load balancing, microgrids, “prosumer” storage, etc.), but you’ll soon be aware of the disconnect between talking points and physical reality. I’ve learned so much in the past six weeks, but I still have a lot more to learn (and I have the advantage of coming from a family of nerdy engineers).

      *Are you going to blame 2011 failure on solar and wind, too?

      • John Swallow Says:

        rhymeswithgoalie Says: “If you want to know understand the grid, go to where the wonks are, not the frickin’ WSJ or other non-technical media.” I found nothing to contradict the seemingly hated frickin’ WSJ in the information that guided me; such as, “Most compressor stations are fueled by a portion of the natural gas flowing through the station, although in some areas of the country, all or some of the units may be electrically powered primarily for environmental or security reasons. Gas-powered compressors may be driven by either conventional piston engines or natural gas turbine units.”
        It appears that no wind or too much wind is not the only problem these wind farms experience.

        New Brunswick discovers wind farms can freeze in the winter
        “FREDERICTON — A $200-million wind farm in northern New Brunswick is frozen solid, cutting off a potential supply of renewable energy for NB Power.
        The 25-kilometre stretch of wind turbines, located 70 kilometres northwest of Bathurst, N.B. has been completely shutdown for several weeks due to heavy ice covering the blades.”

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          It isn’t the WSJ per se (their non-editorial coverage seems to be OK), but the use of a mainstream media rather than specialist media or research papers for citation. There are good tech/science writers with deep backgrounds that write for some of them (Chris Mooney springs to mind), and others bring in guest columns from known tech experts, but too many of those outlets accept authoritative-sounding pieces from the likes of Keith McCoy, or from “scientists” who have sworn to disbelieve anything that contradicts with the Bible. (Lifestyle magazines are even worse, with articles that are veiled advertisements for products and industries.)

          You even have to check some of the in-depth books with endnotes and “citations” that don’t actually support what is written in the text. If you don’t want to cross-check a bunch of references, you can rely on writers with established reputations (or good editors) for accuracy, or check online critical reviews that are explicit in debunking poor facts or scholarship.

          [BTW, I also criticize many heartfelt but inexpert activists for any cause, and prefer the sober assessments from experts with deep backgrounds who are not afraid to do the math.]

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    From the KTBC video:
    “…but they’re just hoping scientists and lawmakers can use the information to make appropriate changes.”

    I literally laughed out loud at that.
    I live in the state capital, where the Evil Clowns meet.

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