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More than half of Houston-area power plants failed before

ERCOT records show 24 power-generating plants in the Greater Houston area had at least one unit fail during the winter storm.

HOUSTON — Most of the Houston-area power plants that went down in last month’s winter storm also failed during the last big Texas freeze a decade ago, according to a KHOU 11 analysis of data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

ERCOT records show 24 power-generating plants in the Greater Houston area had at least one unit fail during Winter Storm Uri. Fourteen may have known they were at risk of failing again because they also experienced a unit failure in the 2011 winter storm that paralyzed much of Texas.

The 58% repeat-failure rate of Houston-area plants far exceeds the 21% of plants statewide that failed during both winter events.

“We didn’t learn any lessons from 2011, the lessons were clearly out in front of us,” said Ed Hirs, UH professor and KHOU 11 energy analyst.

Hirs referred to a 2011 report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation that concluded that power generators “report having winterization procedures in place” but those procedures were “either inadequate or not adequately followed.”

The federal inquiry made several recommendations to toughen the grid and impose penalties for non-compliance. But neither the Texas Public Utility Commission nor legislators ever made winterization requirements mandatory, and instead opted for non-binding guidelines.

“If we had taken action 10 years ago to keep this market winterized, to keep it robust and resilient, we might have made it through the polar vortex,” Hirs said. “But we didn't.”

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, hopes to change that with new legislation he’s authored. House Bill 2481 would mandate that both electric power generators and gas pipeline facilities that fuel them are weatherized for extreme winter events.

“It wouldn't be permissive, it would be optional, it wouldn't be ‘if you want to do it,’ this would be you have to do it,” Reynolds said.

The companies with the most repeat failures are Calpine Corp. and NRG Texas Power LLC, according to ERCOT records.

Calpine had a total of seven Texas plants with at least one unit failure in both storms. Three of those are in the Houston-area – the Baytown Energy Center, Deer Park Energy Center and Pasadena Power Plant. 

NRG had six failures at plants in both storms, with five in the Houston area – all three of its plants in Harris County, TH Wharton, Greens Bayou Plant and San Jacinto; Cedar Bayou Plant in Chambers; and WA Parish in Fort Bend.

A Calpine spokesperson said the majority recent outages were caused by “matters beyond our control” including grid disturbances and natural gas supply disruptions.

At a recent state legislative hearing, NRG President and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez testified that his company has a robust winterization program. He said natural gas pressure issues were to blame for some plant failures.

“If the natural gas system is compromised, the power system is going to be compromised,” Gutierrez said at the Feb. 25 joint hearing before the Texas House State Affairs and Energy Resources Committee.

The ERCOT list of recent outages does not include the underlying cause for the failure. Across Texas, 217 plants reported a combined 1,661 outages.

The Texas Public Utility Commission declined to answer questions about repeat power plant failures. A spokesperson said testimony at legislative hearings “will stand as agency commentary.”

But newly appointed PUC Chair Arthur D’Andrea recently owned up to the agency’s mistakes about how the massive power failures during Winter Storm Uri.

“I’m embarrassed for the role we played in that fiasco,” D’Andrea told the Texas Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. “I do think this is the right team to help the legislature figure out, get to the bottom of what went wrong and figure out how to stop it from happening again,” he said.