Texas Power Plants Failed Because They Aren’t Dressed for Winter

Texas blackouts triggered by frozen power infrastructure have left many wondering why the state’s electricity generators weren’t prepared for the cold.

The short answer: They aren’t required to cold-proof their assets. While generators in chillier regions are typically compelled by federal or state rules to protect their plants from the elements, Texas plants can leave their pipes, valves and pressure gauges exposed. It’s cheaper that way.

“The power plants in the Northeast, we put exterior closures around it,” said Michael Webber, the chief science and technology officer at Engie, and an energy professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “They wrap a building around the plant.”

While Texas’s grid operator has called for generators to winterize their facilities after a 2011 cold snap also led to blackouts, it can’t force the companies to do so, said Adrian Shelley, Texas office director of the advocacy group Public Citizen.

“From a generator perspective, the only incentive is to bring energy to market as cheaply as possible,” Shelley said. “Those sorts of investments aren’t recouped in any other way but by selling energy.”

Texas Power Plants Failed Because They Aren’t Dressed for Winter

More than 45 gigawatts of Texas electricity capacity has been shut this week, in many cases because the instrumentation froze over, according to the state’s grid operator. Natural gas, coal, wind and even nuclear facilities have gone dark because of the cold and wind turbines have stopped because of ice on the blades.

In West Texas, wellheads have frozen, curbing natural gas supplies bound for power plants. While fieldworkers in frigid North Dakota are used to cold-proofing -- for example, using winterized chemicals for fracking, setting up heaters to keep equipment warm and installing chains on all trucks -- Texans aren’t accustomed to it.

“Some of it too is just the cost of capital,” said Joseph Triepke, founder of the industry research firm Infill Thinking. “We’re all trying to run so lean, and this kind of weather is a once-every-several-years or more kind of thing. You’re just not going to invest in having that winterization infrastructure on hand.”

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