After series of winter storms, federal regulators approve new standards for power plants

By: - February 23, 2023 12:07 pm

Fort Worth in 2021. Utility standards have always “reflected the industry lowest-common denominator” and represent a “floor, not a ceiling,” says an energy consultant. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Two years after Winter Storm Uri, which caused a massive power failure in Texas that caused more than 200 deaths, and just two months after another storm, Elliott, forced blackouts in parts of the South, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved new extreme cold reliability standards for power plants. 

However, the vote last week on the standards came with the acknowledgement by the commission that the new rules don’t go nearly far enough. The commission sent the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the nonprofit regulator that sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S., back to the drawing board in several respects.

“There are a number of good measures in what we accept today to be sure,” FERC Commissioner Allison Clements said. “But the critical generator weatherization requirements as they were proposed, to be frank, are not up to the task.” 

Extreme cold weather, like the temperatures seen during Uri and Elliott, can knock out power plants that haven’t been adequately winterized.

During Uri, natural gas, coal and nuclear plants, as well as wind turbines, failed to hit their expected output, per a report by the University of Texas at Austin. More than 52,000 megawatts of generation went offline during the event, about 40% of the total capacity in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the electric grid for most of the state. Problems included frozen lines and valves, boiler issues, iced turbine blades and other problems. In 2021, natural gas generation made up more than 50% of ERCOT’s capacity in 2021, with wind about 25%. 

In December, as Elliott sent temperatures rapidly plunging across much of the central and eastern United States, gas and coal plants tripped offline, forcing Duke Energy in North Carolina and the Tennessee Valley Authority to order rolling blackouts in their respective territories. PJM, the largest U.S. grid operator, overseeing an area that includes 65 million people and all or part of 13 states and the District of Columbia, implored customers to conserve electricity as 46,000 megawatts of power generation, mostly natural gas and coal plants, went offline because of fuel supply problems and equipment failures. 

And in Texas this winter, despite new weatherization standards for power plants approved last year, power plants still failed to perform because of both fuel shortages and other problems.

“We are not adequately winterizing power plants today, even under the ERCOT standards,” said Alison Silverstein, an energy consultant and former FERC senior adviser who also worked at the Public Utility Commission of Texas and Pacific Gas and Electric. “The failure of those power plants and our gas supply is putting human lives at risk. FERC is absolutely right to tell NERC to do better and do better faster.”

The new standards adopted by FERC last week include freeze protection steps, better cold weather preparedness plans, requirements to identify freeze-prone equipment, corrective action for freezing problems, training requirements and other procedures.

“These new standards will help to prepare our nation’s grid and our grid operators so they can provide power to consumers in the face of extreme weather,” FERC Chairman Willie Phillips said in a statement.

But FERC also found “areas for improvement” and directed NERC to “address concerns related to applicability, ambiguity, a lack of objective measures and deadlines and prolonged, indefinite compliance periods.” 

Clements noted, for example, that the standards only require existing power generators to weatherize so they can operate at extreme cold temperatures for one hour starting in April 2027.

“Yeah. One hour, starting in 2027. Needless to say that doesn’t bring total comfort that we will ensure we get through the next multi-day event like Winter Storm Uri,” she said. “And waiting four additional winters before weatherization requirements actually kick in does not reflect the urgency we feel.”

In a statement, NERC said it “appreciates FERC’s focus on reliability matters and will continue to work toward assuring the reliability and security of the North American bulk power system.”

Silverstein said NERC standards have always “reflected the industry lowest-common denominator” and represent a “floor, not a ceiling,” adding that regional grid operators can implement tougher standards.

“This isn’t just some minor engineering issue. This is provably life and death. And the frequency and ferocity of cold weather events over the past decade has changed enough that it is essential that this be handled as soon as possible,” she said.

“This is a way to put some fire under the NERC drafting committee and the board of trustees so they do what needs to be done.”  

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert Zullo is a national energy reporter based in southern Illinois focusing on renewable power and the electric grid. Robert joined States Newsroom in 2018 as the founding editor of the Virginia Mercury. Before that, he spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. He has a bachelor's degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey.