Why Cold Weather Cut the Power in Texas

This week’s power outages in Texas have brought many areas of the state to a standstill as unusually cold temperatures have persisted. One reason for the continued blackouts is that many of Texas’ power plants are built for the opposite weather conditions.

The state’s plants are designed to shed heat instead of keeping it in, which helps in hot months but can be detrimental during cold snaps, according to researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute. But on Thursday

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott,

who criticized the performance of his state’s grid operator this week and called for changes amid a public outcry, recommended that Texas plants winterize their equipment and that the state should supply the funding to make it happen.

More than 4 million electricity customers have lost power this week, with more than 33% of homes and businesses without electricity at one point Tuesday, according to utilities data aggregator PowerOutage.US. Many of the areas such as El Paso that are outside of Texas’ main power grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), have been spared some of the most intense outages.

Percentage of customers without power

Percentage of customers without power

Percentage of customers without power

Percentage of customers without power

Given the state’s normally warm climate, not all of Texas’ power plants are fully equipped with winterization measures—protections plants use to prevent freezing of pipes, sensors, motors and other components. In northern climates, many winterization measures are permanent and plants are housed within entire building structures for protection from the cold. But experts said that because of Texas’ summer heat, plant operators need to keep components exposed.

Protecting thermal power plants, such as coal and gas-fueled facilities, is done using several methods, according to regulators and industry experts:

Electrical cables placed along pipes, sensors and other critical devices to provide heat and can be activated automatically or manually when temperatures become cold enough.

Devices such as portable heaters (electric, propane, kerosene, gas) are brought into and around the plant on a temporary basis to prevent the freezing of pipes, sensors and other critical devices.

Much like in a home heating system, temporary or permanent insulation around equipment to keep piping components from freezing .

Temporary or permanent walls to shield exposed pipes, sensors and other critical devices from cold winds during winter storms.

Electrical cables placed along pipes, sensors and other critical devices to provide heat and can be activated automatically or manually when temperatures become cold enough.

Devices such as portable heaters (electric, propane, kerosene, gas) are brought into and around the plant on a temporary basis to prevent the freezing of pipes, sensors and other critical devices.

Much like in a home heating system, temporary or permanent insulation around equipment to keep piping components from freezing .

Temporary or permanent walls to shield exposed pipes, sensors and other critical devices from cold winds during winter storms.

Electrical cables placed along pipes, sensors and other critical devices to provide heat and can be activated automatically or manually when temperatures become cold enough.

Devices such as portable heaters (electric, propane, kerosene, gas) are brought into and around the plant on a temporary basis to prevent the freezing of pipes, sensors and other critical devices.

Much like in a home heating system, temporary or permanent insulation around equipment to keep piping components from freezing .

Temporary or permanent walls to shield exposed pipes, sensors and other critical devices from cold winds during winter storms.

Electrical cables placed along pipes, sensors and other critical devices to provide heat and can be activated automatically or manually when temperatures become cold enough.

Much like in a home heating system, temporary or permanent insulation around equipment to keep piping components from freezing .

Temporary or permanent walls to shield exposed pipes, sensors and other critical devices from cold winds during winter storms.

Devices such as portable heaters (electric, propane, kerosene, gas) are brought into and around the plant on a temporary basis to prevent the freezing of pipes, sensors and other critical devices.

Following a similar weather event in 2011, plant operators in Texas created a set of best practices for winterizing equipment, but these were voluntary recommendations, according to Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at Ercot.

Another major source of Texas’ electricity also susceptible to the cold contributed in part to the outages. Wind turbines installed in warm weather climates can generally operate above -4 degrees Fahrenheit but will shut down in colder temperatures. Ice buildup on the blades can also lead to slower rotations and even shut down a turbine. In northern climates such as Canada and Scandinavia, winterization measures are typically built into the turbines during manufacturing, but can be retrofitted to turbines already in operation:

Electric heating elements

Built inside the blade, are connected to sensors and activated in icy conditions.

Heating units warm air that flows through the blade.

An experimental technology, are applied to blade exteriors and designed to prevent icing

Helicopters have been used to apply de-icing solution to icy blades.

Electric heating elements

Built inside the blade, are connected to sensors and activated in icy conditions.

An experimental technology, are applied to blade exteriors and designed to prevent icing

Helicopters have been used to apply de-icing solution to icy blades.

Heating units warm air that flows through the blade.

Electric heating elements

Built inside the blade, are connected to sensors and activated in icy conditions.

An experimental technology, are applied to blade exteriors and designed to prevent icing

Heating units warm air that flows through the blade.

Helicopters have been used to apply de-icing solution to icy blades.

Heating units warm air that flows through the blade.

Electric heating

elements

Built inside the blade, are connected to sensors and activated in icy conditions.

An experimental technology, are applied to blade exteriors and designed to prevent icing

Helicopters have been used to apply de-icing solution to icy blades.

This week’s problems showed that much of the electricity sources in Texas remained unable to perform in cold temperatures. While renewable sources of wind and solar were down, the cold weather and lack of natural-gas supply have made it difficult to restart enough power plants to meet extraordinarily high electricity demand.

Daily Texas region electricity generation by energy source

Daily Texas region electricity generation by energy source

Daily Texas region electricity generation by energy source

Daily Texas region electricity generation by energy source

Residents of Texas continued to see power and water disruptions after a series of winter storms, leaving millions to search for heat, food and clean water. Photo: Julia Robinson for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Max Rust at [email protected]

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