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Regulators warn much of U.S. power grid is vulnerable to major winter storms

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

North America's power grid is vulnerable. A new assessment finds that if a major storm hits this winter, about two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada could face energy shortages and outages. People living in Southwestern states are at particular risk. Mose Buchele of member station KUT in Austin reports on attempts to improve their grid before time runs out.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Outside of Austin's Sand Hill natural gas power plant, workers have installed a windbreak in case a big winter storm hits again. Plant manager Matt Kuffler says the sturdy plastic shrink-wrap affixed to the bottom of the plant will stop cold wind blowing through and freezing the pipes inside.

MATT KUFFLER: We've not had one of these walls fail yet.

BUCHELE: Kuffler says Sand Hill kept generating power even through the massive winter storm called Uri that struck Texas in February 2021. But a lot of Texas gas plants, some without these safeguards, froze up and stopped working.

KUFFLER: It's more challenging to get ready for winter than it is for summer 'cause these units were designed when it was already hot in summer in Texas.

BUCHELE: That winter grid breakdown left millions of Texans without power for days. State officials say almost 250 Texans died, though some analysts believe the true death toll was far higher. Kuffler says after that tragedy, utilities in other states saw Texas' energy problems as an outlier, unique to Texas. Then last year, another big winter storm - this one called Elliott - pushed power grids to the brink from the Midwest through the Northeast.

KUFFLER: Other utilities outside of Texas had - maybe not quite the same degree of problems, but had an awful lot of problems. So there was - instead of an air of sympathy, it was an air of camaraderie.

BUCHELE: The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, is a nonprofit industry group charged with creating reliability standards. In its new report, it warned that grid vulnerability is a national problem. John Moura, director of reliability assessment for NERC, says the risk of blackouts this winter is greater than he's ever seen.

JOHN MOURA: And we're actually seeing that risk expand over wider areas. So, yeah, more people being affected by the tightening of reserves that we see in the future.

BUCHELE: The reasons for that high risk this year vary across the country, but the big picture is the same all over. The power grid is changing. It's getting more electricity from natural gas, solar and wind - all sources that don't always perform well in winter storms. Meanwhile, electricity demand is increasing, pulling more energy from often shrinking reserves. When you add in more frequent climate change-fueled winter storms, experts say you have a recipe for power failures.

ALISON SILVERSTEIN: We are between a rock and a hard place, or a rock and a cold place.

BUCHELE: Alison Silverstein is an energy consultant. She says winterizing power plants is low-hanging fruit. But long-term improvements, like building out electricity transmission and gas pipeline capacity, will take a lot more time and money. That's why, she says, grid managers should focus more on promoting energy efficiency and reducing energy demand.

SILVERSTEIN: This isn't a problem that you can delay any longer. The only way to get out of it responsibly, quickly, is massive amounts of energy efficiency because we can't build our way out of this fast enough.

BUCHELE: Federal regulators and critics are also urging stronger oversight of the natural gas industry. During the last two big winter storms, they say poor reliability standards and an under-regulated gas market created insufficient fuel supply to power plants. NERC's John Moura says that only worsened the energy crunch.

MOURA: And what we're really come to find out is these two systems are now one. We're reliant on the gas system to be just as reliable as the electric system.

BUCHELE: Back at the Sand Hill gas plant in Austin, Matt Kuffler says he's doing what he can to get ready for the next big storm.

KUFFLER: Just 'cause it's happened within the last couple of years doesn't mean it's not going to happen again. It doesn't mean it's not going to be worse. And we need to be prepared to handle that.

BUCHELE: But big structural changes to the energy system require political will. That's a challenge in states like Texas, where the gas and oil industry has enormous political and financial clout to push back against more regulation and oversight.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.
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