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Texas officials order power plant operators to prepare for winter hazards

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

It's been nearly a year since the worst blackout in Texas history. Hundreds of people died as millions were left without power for days in the freezing cold. With winter approaching again, state officials have ordered power plant operators to be better prepared. But as Mose Buchele reports from member station KUT in Austin, it may not be enough to prevent another extreme weather blackout.

CURT TERRY: Do I have everybody?

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: On a balmy fall morning, Curt Terry leads a tour through a gas power plant in rural Midlothian, Texas. It's owned by the energy company Vistra. And one of the first things you notice is how exposed things seem. There are valves, pipes, control panels out in the open. In colder parts of the world, Terry, the plant manager, says it would not be like this.

TERRY: Everything that you're seeing would all be inside of an enclosure, which is one of the challenges in the state of Texas. We've got to battle the heat more than we do the cold.

BUCHELE: That, in a nutshell, is what winterizing is. You take a Texas power plant and make it so it can run in the cold, too. Last February, that did not happen. About half of the state's natural gas plants had trouble making power. So this year, they must put up shelters around exposed parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

BUCHELE: Here, I'm just banging on one with my fist. It's simple corrugated metal, but it protects against winds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY AMBIENCE)

BUCHELE: Terry shows how they've also installed air dryers and humidity monitors to make sure that air running through the plant doesn't freeze.

TERRY: OK, we'll go ahead, and we'll keep moving.

BUCHELE: The thing is, at the Midlothian plant, none of this is new. They've been winterizing here since a big freeze 10 years ago. And they still had problems last February. The reason was interruptions with their natural gas supply. Terry says gas just stopped flowing, forcing the plant to stop generating power. Consultant Doug Lewin of Stoic Energy says to understand the predicament of Texas power generators, it helps to think of gas plants like cars.

DOUG LEWIN: You're servicing your engine at 30,000, 60,000 miles. You're changing your oil. You're doing everything just right. If you don't have any gasoline to put in your car, it's not going anywhere.

BUCHELE: A recent federal report named gas supply problems as a main cause of the blackout. But while the state has mandated that power plants winterize, it has not yet even set standards on how to winterize gas infrastructure. That's why, recently, a lot of attention has turned to the state's oil and gas regulators at an agency called the Railroad Commission of Texas.

WAYNE CHRISTIAN: OK, let's go on to agenda item No. 1.

BUCHELE: Over the last few months, commissioners there have been lambasted by state lawmakers, energy analysts and in editorial pages for inaction ahead of the coming cold. But the commissioners, like Chair Wayne Christian, continue to downplay the role natural gas had in last February's crisis.

CHRISTIAN: The winter storm has been used as a weapon by the media and the far-left to attack fossil fuels.

BUCHELE: The commission recently settled on a process to winterize some of the gas supply, but it won't happen for months or maybe longer. And that lack of readiness is one reason both federal regulators and the state grid operator say Texas still runs the risk of blackouts in extreme cold. Again, Stoic Energy's Doug Lewin.

LEWIN: It's frustrating that there's not a weatherization standard in place, but we all need to make sure that there's one in place before next winter.

BUCHELE: Until that's done, many Texans are bracing for the worst while they hope for mild weather.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "MARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.