A polar vortex split dumped Arctic air into Texas, along with multiple winter storms, created havoc on the state’s power grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). What happened, and why, more specifically, how did one nuclear power plant which provides power for two million homes shutdown?
How is it possible that a nuclear power plant in Texas had to shutter operations due to freezing weather, but nuclear power plants can operate without disruption in Russia?
The answer is simple – the South Texas Nuclear Power Station failed to winterize its facilities. After all, whoever thought Arctic conditions would be seen in on the Gulf of Mexico?
On Monday, the nuclear power plant had to shut one of two reactors down, halving its 2,700 megawatts of generating capacity. The plant, which operates on a 12,200-acre site west of the Colorado River about 90 miles southwest of Houston, provides power for more than two million homes.
According to Washington Examiner, the nuclear power plant was not winterized to withstand cold weather.
“It’s very rare for weather issues to shut down a nuclear plant,” said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the Clean Air Task Force. “Some equipment in some nuclear plants in Texas has not been hardened for extreme cold weather because there was never a need for this.”
On Monday, South Texas Nuclear Power Station posted “Event Number: 55104” on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website explaining low steam generation was due to the loss of water pumps. In response, reactor one was shutdown.
“It was the connection between the power plant and outside systems,” Alex Gilbert, project manager at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, told the Washington Examiner.
The reactor’s shutdown only represented 1,280 megawatts of the 30,000 megawatts of outages on Monday. Nuclear power provides about 11% of ERCOT’s power.
Much of the power generation loss was due to freezing wellheads that impeded the flow of natgas to power stations, triggering electric shortages as demand overwhelmed the grid.
The high concentration of natgas generation on ERCOT’s grid makes it vulnerable to power disruptions if fuel flow is disrupted.
What’s worse is that ERCOT is a separate grid than the rest of the country. This means ERCOT had limited ability to pull power from other grids, which was why blackouts occurred.
The reactor’s return would boost the grid and help in restoring power. Overnight, ERCOT tweeted that they “continue to restore power, electric companies continue to bring generation back online.”
Arctic air is expected to leave the Lone Star State by the late weekend. This means power generation could be mostly restored as various fuel types of generation come back online.
But even as power returns, Texas is facing a humanitarian crisis as unintended consequences of a several day power grid collapse have left many people hungry, emotionally distraught, local economies ground to a halt, skyrocketing power bills for some, broken pipes in residential and commercial structures, water main breaks, and a major embarrassment for state leadership.
Maybe – just – maybe – Texas should start winterizing their power grid for a start. Significant reforms to ERCOT will come, and it wouldn’t shock us if a movement begins to push the power operator to tie its grid into the rest of the nation’s.
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