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In wake of Texas power crisis, US Senate examines threats to grid resilience

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During a March 11 hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said none of the U.S. power grid's energy resources is "100% immune to weather disruptions."
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With Texas still reeling from the fallout of widespread power outages in February, a U.S. Senate panel held a March 11 hearing on the reliability, resilience and affordability of the nation's electric grid.

Although the hearing often touched on the state's power crisis, it explored a whole range of threats and recent blackouts beyond Texas, with more frequent extreme weather events and an increasingly resource-diverse and complex power grid posing challenges across the country.

"Today's hearing is not a referendum on Texas," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, pointing to other large-scale blackouts stemming from the 2014 polar vortex in the eastern U.S. and extreme heat and wildfires in California in 2020. "We need to incorporate all the lessons learned from those events into our future planning."

Both the Texas Legislature and federal agencies are investigating the February grid failures. The North American Electric Reliability Corp., which develops mandatory reliability standards for all states, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are conducting their own joint probe and "committed to quickly getting the facts," NERC's President and CEO James Robb said at the hearing.

Although NERC's investigation is not complete, Robb said industry and policymakers must consider more investment in transmission and natural gas infrastructure to accommodate the growing share of U.S. generation from intermittent wind and solar energy. He also said regulation and oversight of gas supplies for power production "needs to be rethought."

"While natural gas is key to supporting a reliable transformation of the grid, the natural gas system is not built and regulated to serve the needs of an electric power sector that is increasingly dependent upon reliable natural gas service," Robb said in his prepared remarks. "Clear regulatory authority is needed over natural gas when used for electric generation."

Robb also urged better planning for extreme weather, which has "frankly becoming more routine," and called for increased investment in energy storage, hydrogen and other technologies.

Weatherization, performance penalties

Mandatory weatherization standards were another topic. The Electric Reliability Council Of Texas Inc. currently does not have mandatory weatherization standards, with the state historically more likely to encounter extreme heat than cold. No representatives from ERCOT attended the hearing, with Manchin saying he had invited the grid operator but "they needed to remain available to their direct regulators" in Texas.

Robb said NERC will know after its investigation whether generators in Texas had followed through on voluntary weatherization guidelines that NERC and FERC included in a 2011 report on a separate cold snap in Texas. NERC is now drafting mandatory national standards, with Robb noting that insufficient and inadequate weatherization in the southern U.S. has been a growing concern since 2012.

But another panelist insisted that Texas has learned its lesson, with the state legislature considering weatherization bills for the gas and power industries.

"Those [bills] will be adopted, and they will be stout," said Pat Wood, a former FERC chairman and past head of the Public Utility Commission of Texas. "It didn't work after 2011, so it will work now because it will be compulsory and there will be performance penalties."

Manu Asthana, President and CEO of the PJM Interconnection, said improved gas-power coordination and performance penalties that the mid-Atlantic grid operator adopted after 2014's polar vortex have helped the region better handle extremely cold weather. Forced outages in PJM during a recent cold snap peaked at 9.8%, well below 22% during the 2014 polar vortex, Asthana reported.

Fuel source debate

The hearing also touched on the performance of different energy resources during cold weather and what that says about the country's efforts to add more renewable resources at the same time as large amounts of coal-fired and nuclear generation have retired.

Manchin said none of the U.S. power grid's generating resources is "100% immune to weather disruptions." In Texas, more than half of the outages during the February cold snap were from gas-fired plants, making it the single biggest source of outages, followed by wind, coal, solar and nuclear generation.

But the Senate energy committee's ranking member, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Texas' troubles have highlighted the risk of losing more coal and nuclear generation, with nuclear having "outperformed all other energy resources in Texas" during the February cold snap.

"We need to be realistic about the limitations of energy sources such as wind and solar that cannot generate electricity all the time," Barrasso said. The Wyoming lawmaker also criticized President Joe Biden's call to decarbonize the U.S. power sector by 2035, saying it was "a goal no state — not even California — has set for itself."

Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of the pro-nuclear group Environmental Progress, said recent power outages in California and Texas show that replacing nuclear plants with variable renewable resources "could make electricity grids less resilient."

"While energy sources across all categories failed in mid-February, they didn't all fail equally," Shellenberger said in prepared remarks. "The capacity factors for nuclear, natural gas, coal, and wind in Texas during the four days of load shedding during the cold snap were 79%, 55%, 58%, and 14%, respectively."

The hearing did not touch much on Texas' insular market structure or its role in last month's blackouts. Wood said Texas set up its own power market because the state wanted to have one regulator and not have to negotiate with other states or the federal government, something he said was an "easier thing to do."

"I wish for that for the whole nation, that we had that kind of unified vision," Wood said. "We've got to look to the Congress for that. I know that's been hard to get over past generations."