Texas PUC formally approves new power plant weather protection rule

The Texas Public Utility Commission has formally approved a new power plant weather protection rule.

The new rule mandates inspections of power plants with fines for failing to comply after December 31. The rule is based on reports issued after the 2011 power crisis which lawmakers at the time considered guidelines and not a requirement.

The inspections will be done by ERCOT which manages most of the power grid in Texas. ERCOT's new board meets tomorrow and may get a briefing on how the power plant inspections will be done.

A power plant in east Austin is among the more than 600 electrical generating units feeding the Texas power grid. All of them, from wind and solar farms to natural gas and coal burners, are now required to be weatherized. Electrical substations are also to weather protection features. 

Members of the Texas Public Utility Commission approved the new rules Thursday morning and essentially put power companies on the clock. "This is a tremendous day," said PUC Chairman Peter Lake.

Staff at the PUC drafted the final rule a month ahead of a deadline set by the State Legislature. Lake told the Commission it was fast tracked in order to make sure it would be in place for this winter.

"For the first time, we're requiring them to meet federal winterization standards and address and mitigate problems they experienced last winter. So the bottom line is that our power grid will be more resilient and operating under a more conservative approach this winter," said Lake.

The rules were drafted from a report issued after the 2011 winter storm. At that time, state lawmakers did not put a mandate on the ideas for winterizing. They were reduced to suggestions. The new rule includes inspections starting in late November and running until December 31'st.  High priority sites will be targeted first. The goal is to have all power plants checked at least once every three years.

"There will be fines of up to one million dollars per day per incident if these standards are not met. So those, those are real dollars that can add up real quickly," said Lake.

Compliance deadlines include:

  • December 1st: Power companies must file a report on which sites are protected and weatherized.
  • December 10th: ERCOT has to issue an official list of weatherized locations to the PUC.

This enforcement rebuild is like a big construction project. On a jobsite, there's a lot of people involved. In regards to weatherization, there are other agencies involved.

"A significant portion of our generation here in the state is fueled by natural gas. And so the Texas Railroad Commission has the responsibility to put similar requirements in place for their plants and their other entities to be properly prepared to deal with weather challenges. So they have an element of it. So we've been working closely with them, and we're also working closely with the Texas Department of Emergency Management so that we are making sure that all of these resources, all of these entities come together at the table in the event of a crisis so that there's clear communications," said Andrew Barlow PUC Director for External Affairs.

The success of the weather prep -ramp up will hinge on the inspection process that will be managed by ERCOT. The new ERCOT Board of Directors is scheduled to meet Friday. At that time they may get an update on the inspection team and if the team will be ready on November 1.

There's more work for the PUC to do. Some adjustments to the weather rule is expected when a new climate study is done next year. The agency is also working on a new marketing model. The goal is to move from cheap power to reliability. The change could mean higher utility bills for consumers.

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