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Texas is urging power plants to prepare so there won't be another winter blackout

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly a year ago, a historically powerful Arctic front landed and stayed in Texas for quite a bit of February. Many millions lost their electricity. Structural ice damage was widespread, and hundreds of people died in their powerless homes. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, for years, the state's power plants have been legally allowed to keep their outdoor equipment vulnerable to weather. But with winter approaching again, the state is urging plans to protect that equipment.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It was Saturday, Valentine's Day, when an Arctic front full of snow, sleet and freezing rain began to drop through Texas. The weather just got colder - low double digits, single digits - and with them came statewide electric outages. There was a moment when Texas got to within four minutes and 37 seconds before the power completely collapsed. It would have taken weeks to restore. Texas refuses to share electricity with other states so it can avoid federal regulations. So even if it suffers mass outages, that's just too bad for the Lone Star State.

JIM ROBB: We have never seen anything on the scale of what we saw in February.

GOODWYN: Jim Robb is the CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. It oversees the security and dependability of the country's bulk power system. For years, Rob and other experts have been urging Texas to change its laws so the state's numerous power industries with vulnerable outdoor equipment are held accountable. Here's Robb.

ROBB: First of all, is that the power plants in general were not weatherized to the extent necessary to withstand the extreme temperatures that they were operating under. That was most dramatic for the natural gas, but it was true of wind. Wind turbines were frozen. The nuclear plant had instrumentation issues. Coal plants had frozen coal piles. But it was natural gas that failed on such a dramatic scale.

GOODWYN: When it comes to regulation from the Texas legislature, the state's oil, natural gas, coal the power industry has long and successfully resisted. A decade ago, when the Super Bowl was being played in the Cowboys' new stadium, there was a winter storm disaster then, too. The count was 241 failed power plants, 4 million Texans in the dark, and untold thousands of frustrated, annoyed Steelers and Packers fans. In response, the federal government's energy authorities wrote a serious paper explaining what Texas needed to do. Here's the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Rich Glick.

RICH GLICK: And somehow, after the report was issued, nothing happened. And so this time I think we need to learn from that experience and say, no, we can't just rely on voluntary, guy (ph), and assume that these electric generating facilities are going to winterize on their own. We need to require that.

GOODWYN: But in the Lone Star State, Peter Lake, the chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, sees improvement.

PETER LAKE: The most important thing and the bottom line is we are in vastly better shape this winter than we were last winter.

GOODWYN: The commission has set up some new rules that requires the power companies to use their, quote, "best efforts" to improve their equipment to have a better shot of enduring meaningful temperature drops. Here's Peter Lake again.

LAKE: Well, as you know, there are no guarantees in Texas weather. But over the last six or seven months, we've made more substantial reforms in a short amount of time than any other grid in America.

GOODWYN: Nevertheless, if we imagine another unusually powerful Arctic front blasting down out of Canada straight into Texas in eight weeks, it's predicted millions could still lose their power again - theoretically. Hopefully that's not what happens two years in a row - would be nice to be able to turn the heater on, though, if it does. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An audio version of this story, and the transcript, said that Valentine’s Day 2021 was on Saturday. It was on Sunday.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.