Texas grid operators cut off power to natural gas compressors, making the blackouts worse

We continue to unravel what went wrong in the Texas blackouts, but one key piece of information that is often left out of the conversation is the fact that grid operators shut off power to natural gas compressor stations in Texas, preventing natural gas producers from getting the fuel to power plants. The results were catastrophic.

An article in Bloomberg describes the sequence of events:

When the Texas power grid was on the brink of collapse and its operator plunged thousands into darkness, it didn’t make an exception for the oil and gas field.

Power was, unsurprisingly, diverted to hospitals and nursing homes. ERCOT, as the grid manager is known, was staving off utter catastrophe, its chief executive later said.

But leaving shale fields like the Permian Basin dark had an unintended consequence. Producers who depend on electricity to power their operations were left with no way to pump natural gas. And that gas was needed more than ever to generate electricity.

As one executive described: It was like a death spiral.

The result was a vicious cycle that serves as a painful lesson to any power grid operator and utility company dealing with rolling outages during extreme weather.

According to an article in the Texas Tribune:

At one point during February’s winter storm, more than half of the state’s natural gas supply was shut down due to power outages, frozen equipment and weather conditions, analysts estimateMore than 9,000 megawatts of power outages were caused by power plants not getting enough gas, enough to power 1.8 million Texas homes and accounting for at least 20% of the total outages during the week of the storm, according to ERCOT’s estimate.

By Wednesday, Feb. 17, natural gas supply in the state hit its lowest point during the storm, experts said. Nye told legislators during his testimony that they were so concerned about the supply of natural gas that his chief operating officer called him and said: “I’m just going to turn on the Permian and see what happens.”

“And we just turned it on,” he said.

Some regulators and experts believe that Texas’ power outages would have been minimal, or at least shortened if the natural gas supply system had not lost power.

Christi Craddick, chair of the Railroad Commission, told lawmakers during testimony the week after the storm that outages “caused a domino effect,” adding that “any issues of frozen [natural gas] equipment could have been avoided had the production facilities not been shut down by power outages.”

On Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry Podcast, John Harpole, the president of the Denver-based natural gas brokerage firm Mercator Energy, told Bryce that shutting power off to the natural gas compressors was likely one reason why some wellheads froze. As we Midwestern folks understand, moving things are less likely to freeze than things that aren’t moving.

It appears that some of the natural gas shortages were the result of grid operator error. How this affects the need to winterize pipeline infrastructure in the future remains to be seen. Texas will likely look for ways to ensure that natural gas producers are not cut off from the grid in the future, and look for ways to weather-proof the system to make sure the blackouts never happen again.