How Texas’ power grid failed in 2021 — and who’s responsible for preventing a repeat

(Illustration By Emily Albracht, Illustration By Emily Albracht)

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Voters decide who’s responsible for overseeing the power grid in Texas. The power plants that generate electricity, the wires that carry it to households, and the businesses and operators that manage it all fall under the purview of the governor. Most power plants run on natural gas, an industry that is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission, a three-member board elected statewide.

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How the grid works

The power grid is made up of many different companies that generate electricity with natural gas, coal, nuclear power, wind and solar energy before transmission companies send it to homes and businesses. Retail electric providers handle the finances, selling power to customers.

About 60% of Texas electricity customers choose from among dozens of power retailers on an open market. Electricity producers such as Calpine and Vistra Corp. generate the power, while retailers such as Gexa Energy and Tara Energy sell it to residents and businesses.

Since many power plants in Texas rely on natural gas as a fuel source, the state’s natural gas supply chain is critical to the flow of electricity.

What went wrong during the February 2021 winter freeze

During the power grid crisis, all sources of electricity struggled during the frigid temperatures. The inability of power plants to perform in the extreme cold was the No. 1 cause of the outages last year.

During the February 2021 winter storm, transmission companies inadvertently cut power to parts of the natural gas supply chain when ERCOT ordered the utilities to reduce power demand or risk further damage to the grid. That decision aggravated the problem as natural gas producers were unable to deliver enough fuel to power plants. At the same time, some wells were unable to produce as much natural gas due to the freezing conditions.

The Texas Legislature in 2021 ordered electricity regulators to require power plants to better prepare for extreme weather. The Public Utility Commission has imposed some early requirements, such as requiring plants to winterize based on previous federal guidance, but lawmakers did not require the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the gas industry, to quickly impose weatherization standards.

Emily Albracht contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Calpine has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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