Lessons learned from 2021 Winter Storm Uri

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

BALLINGER TX - It's no secret that from February 13-17, 2021, Texas experienced a catastrophic winter storm, unofficially referred to as "Winter Story Uri." The storm was an Extratropical Cycle with recorded wind speeds of 80 mph. The storm exited to the sea on February 21, but didn't dissipate until February 24.

Winter Storm Uri caused $196 billion in damages and left almost 10,000,000 people without power in Texas, alone. Coleman County Electric Co-op has addressed the challenges that Uri presented to energy providers across the state.

The cost of Uri

The death toll caused by Uri in Texas is estimated to be somewhere between 426-978. The estimated cost of the storm stands at $196.5 billion, making it the costliest winter storm on record. Power outages plagued Texas as the electric grid wasn't prepared to handle the increased demand as people tried to keep their homes and businesses warm. The outages affected an estimated 9,924,000 people. The storm also spawned 6 tornadoes on Monday, February 15.

Winter Storm Uri caused $196 billion in damages and left almost 10,000,000 people without power in Texas, alone.

During the peak of the power outages, 4.5 million customers were left without power. Two of the electricity reliability commissions serving the Southern United States, Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) initiated rolling blackouts in 14 states in an attempt to prevent prolonged blackouts. Both entities faced criticism from the government and their customers. Much of the criticism stemmed from the entities only giving limited advance notice of the blackouts. They were also criticized for not specifically outlining the areas that would be affected by the rolling blackouts.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott called on the Texas Legislature to conduct investigations into preparations and the decisions made by ERCOT, specifically. At one point, Runnels Counted experienced subzero temperatures as winds of over 35 mph.

Insight into what went wrong

Many people have questions with winter now here and temperatures already dropping significantly. Synda Smith, general manager of Coleman County Electric Co-op, gave some insight into what went wrong last year, and what has been done to ensure there is no repeat of the crisis, "I feel like they (ERCOT) have realized that winterization and communication are both essential for Texas not to have another Winter Storm Uri. The electric grid will need to be winterized from the substations all the way to our generator’s fuel pipelines and fuel supply, by the example of the way it is done in our Northern States. Also, Texas knows now that communication between the Railroad Commission, ERCOT and the PUCT (Public Utility Commission of Texas) is essential for the grid to work the way it needs to. This past year, our Texas legislators worked many hours to open the doors between these entities so that they can all help each other make this work."

Winter Storm Uri caused $196 billion in damages and left almost 10,000,000 people without power in Texas, alone. Roads throughout the state were blanketed in ice and snow.

According to Smith, procedures have been put into place to help prevent a repeat of Winter Storm Uri, "New winterization rules for generators and fuel suppliers have been put in place and the PUCT has already started physically auditing these facilities to be sure these rules are upheld. There will be fines for those that are not in compliance. The PUCT and Railroad Commission (RRC) have also adopted a set of rules to prioritize Critical Natural Gas loads that are essential to run our Electric Power Grid. The RRC should have a map finished of the essential fuel suppliers that are critical to the power grid sometime in 2022."

Energy bills in the thousands of dollars

The death toll and billions of dollars in damage weren't the only aspects of the crisis. Many energy customers received electric bills for thousands of dollars. Smith explained why this didn't happen to Coleman County Electric Co-op customers, "The customers that experienced thousands of dollars in charges were buying power from a company that buys power on the current market. When the demand went up and gas prices went to $9,000.00, they in turn had to pay that high price."

Winter Storm Uri caused $196 billion in damages and left almost 10,000,000 people without power in Texas, alone. Roads throughout the state were covered in ice and snow.

Smith continued, "CCEC is fortunate to be a member of Golden Spread Electric Cooperative (GSEC). GSEC owns generation plants that were able to run during most of the Winter Storm except for Monday, which at that time they were unable to operate because of frozen gas. Therefore, when their generators are running, they are making money to offset what had to be paid for our customer’s power. Although it did not help us when the generators were down on Monday, it helped us in the days after when the market continued to be high."

Smith said that the steps taken by the state will help, "I feel like the new rules our legislators have put in place should keep this from happening again as long as everyone does their part and follows thru. CCEC tries very hard to keep our member’s costs as low and reliable as possible."

Winterizing your home

There a steps people can take to help with winterization, according to Smith, "Cover and wrap exposed pipes and faucets outside. Block drafts and seal leaks around windows and doors. Stock up on bottled water, nonperishable packaged or canned foods. Be sure to have a manual can opener, paper plates and plastic utensils. Be sure to have plenty of blankets. Keep a fully charged battery pack for your phone if possible. Stay away from down power lines. If you are on oxygen or any other type of life-sustaining equipment, please have a backup up plan that does not require electricity (battery backups, generators, etc.), even if it means going to a different location. We have several members registered as critical customers, but we cannot guarantee how long it will take to get their power back on during any unforeseen weather conditions."

Rolling blackouts addressed

Smith said that CCEC has always had plans in place when it comes to rolling blackouts, "CCEC has had a plan in place for rolling outages for a long time, we just did not ever think we would have to use the plan. ERCOT decides when the load is to be shed and then contacts the transmission operators who then, in turn, contact us. They tell us how much load to shed and for how long. CCEC has technology that tells us how much load is being used at each substation. Some lines were left on due to critical needs, such as nursing homes and our large gas pump stations. We manually roll all of our member’s power equally to hopefully give each of our customers some power to warm their home during the zero temperatures. We had some issues and outages that happened that were beyond our control during the winter storm, but since the event, we have been working on other solutions and options to keep these same problems from happening again. CCEC does not have a choice when it comes to shedding load when an order comes from ERCOT. We have to abide by their rules. ERCOT knows where the grid is suffering the most and can salvage it by shedding load accordingly."

During Winter Storm Uri in February 2015, roadways disappeared beneath several inches of snow and ice, adding to the challenges drivers faced.

Lessons Learned

When it was all said and done, Smith said that CCEC started immediately working on solutions to prevent a repeat of the devastation caused by Uri, "We learned how important communication is during our 2021 New Years ice storm and winter storm Uri. Both of these storms put people in scary situations, and I hope it eased their minds by at least knowing that someone was out there trying to fix things even though it may have taken a while to get it done. Sometimes weather conditions and unforeseen circumstances hinder our linemen in the field, making longer outages than we would like them to be. None of these changes and improvements would be happening if it was not for the great job the CCEC Board of Directors is doing today. They are business-oriented and open-minded people in our communities that care a lot about the future of this Coop and I am thankful to have their guidance.