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New Data on February Texas Blackouts Reveals Unprecedented Impact on Energy and Financial Systems

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golden hour Sunrise over Texas Landscape covered in White Powder Snow during winter storm Uri

AUSTIN, Texas — A report from energy experts at The University of Texas at Austin reveals several new insights into the February 2021 winter storm power outages and their financial ramifications.

Using both public and confidential data previously unreviewed, 12 faculty and researchers from across UT Austin gained a clearer picture of the system failures across the ERCOT grid, the unprecedented stress placed on the state’s natural gas infrastructure, and the effectiveness of financial mitigation steps taken by state regulators.

“The goal of the report is really to provide a common basis of fact and educate the ongoing public debate on how we can avoid similar crises in the future,” said Jay Zarnikau, one of the report’s lead authors and researcher in the Department of Economics. “The university hosts deep and wide-ranging expertise in energy, so when we were presented with the opportunity to analyze these unreviewed data, we knew it was an area in which we could and should contribute.”

The February blackouts, which were the result of failures across all types of power generation technologies, were in part caused by inadequate weatherization of power generators. Using data provided by state officials, the researchers found that the majority of power plants that experienced outages and deratings did so at temperatures above their reported minimum temperature ratings.

The report also projects the effect of pricing actions taken by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) during the crisis. On Feb. 16, PUCT capped the wholesale electricity price at $9,000 per megawatt hour. Without this intervention, researchers determined the price would have risen to $15,000 per MWh on Feb. 18 and then sunk to $3,300 per MWh for several hours on Feb. 19. Overall, they conclude, the PUCT’s decision to fix the price at $9,000 per megawatt hour, independent of other consequences, possibly reduced wholesale electricity costs by $5 billion on Feb.18 and 19.

Failures within the state’s natural gas system, which began in the Permian Basin days prior to ERCOT calling for blackouts, exacerbated electricity issues. While natural gas delivery reached record highs, natural gas production, storage and delivery infrastructure in Texas was stressed to such unprecedented levels that delivery was still well short of the total demand for heating and power generation. During the winter storm, Texas, which is normally a net exporter for 4-6 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas via pipelines, reached almost zero pipeline net exports, the report found.

“The state’s natural gas infrastructure was probably stressed more than any time in history,” said Carey King, assistant director and research scientist at UT’s Energy Institute. “This isn’t the only time natural gas has constrained electricity generation — it happened in other recent blackouts (1989 and 2011) — but this time was unique. The system was stressed to its absolute maximum capability.”

Another variable analyzed in the report is ERCOT’s voluntary Emergency Responsive Service program (ERS). Researchers found that 67 electric meters that were part of the generator fuel supply chain were also enrolled in ERS, which would have cut power to these programs when they were called upon on Feb. 15. Further, the report found that at least five locations that identified themselves after the event to the electric utility as critical natural gas infrastructure were enrolled in the ERS program.

“It seems inconsistent that critical infrastructure should also voluntarily allow themselves to be turned off when they are needed most.” said Joshua D. Rhodes, a research associate in mechanical engineering and one of the co-authors of the report.

This report was funded in part by the PUCT via an interagency agreement with The University of Texas at Austin (UT). Beyond funding, the interagency agreement between the PUCT and UT provided certain members of the research team, under a confidentiality agreement, with access to electricity market participant data and other confidential information collected by the PUCT and ERCOT. The PUCT reviewed a draft of this report to ensure that no confidential information was inadvertently disclosed. The research committee had full discretion as to the content and presentation of material in the report. Any opinions or positions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and do not reflect any official positions of the PUCT, ERCOT, The University of Texas at Austin, or the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System.