A few days before an energy crisis hit Texas, the state’s chief energy regulator issued an order to prioritize “human needs.” It sounded like a no-brainer: Divert natural gas supplies to homes and critical businesses and away from everything else deemed a lower priority.
But more than 100 emails obtained by Bloomberg reveal how the move also sowed confusion as energy suppliers and Texas regulators struggled to determine which power stations should get preferential treatment as millions were plunged into darkness. The disarray meant some facilities that could provide power to the grid lost gas supply when they needed it most.
One power plant that serves half a million customers saw gas supplies cut because of the way a pipeline company interpreted the state’s order. Utilities -- and even some of the state’s own regulators -- scrambled to figure out whether gas should flow to so-called cogeneration plants that provide both heat and power, because they typically serve industrial users but are also capable of supplying the grid. Gas producers, meanwhile, complained about their power being cut, choking off their own operations.
“This may not be a cut and dry determination,” Mark Evarts, a director at the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, wrote in an email the morning of Feb. 14.
The emails received by the commission show how woefully unprepared Texas was for the extreme weather and ensuing energy crisis, even though it has to contend almost yearly with hurricanes, drought and high winds. The confusion arose despite federal energy regulators saying in a report following a cold snap in Texas a decade ago that state regulators should clarify the priority they give to gas customers.
Similar situations are likely to be occur as climate change is expected to bring more natural disasters and threats to power generation. While the recent experience in Texas highlights how the state is unusually dependent on power for heating, with almost two-thirds of homes equipped with electric heating, other parts of the U.S. are expected to follow that trend.