FERC and NERC Review of Winter Storm Gas Failures Lacks Transparency and Key Details

May 15, 2024 | 7:00 am
Pike Electric service trucks line up after a snow storm on February 16, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas.Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
Paul Arbaje
Energy Analyst

This blog post first appeared in Utility Dive on May 3, 2024.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff recently revealed that winter storms Gerri and Heather brought a grid operator to the brink of rolling blackouts sometime between January 10 and January 17, 2024. But instead of providing a detailed assessment of what went wrong, they primarily highlighted the absence of rolling blackouts and the incremental improvements that have been made since the dangerous grid failures of storms Elliott in 2022 and Uri in 2021.

Gerri and Heather were two separate but overlapping storm systems. This blog post refers to them as one storm event to avoid confusion with past events.

Shortly before this latest storm broke out, UCS published a report finding fossil gas power plants to be disproportionately susceptible to failure during extreme winter storms in recent years. Was that true during this latest storm? It appears to be the case, but let’s get into what regulators did—and didn’t—tell us.

FERC and NERC’s limited review

FERC staff, along with staff of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., released a presentation of their joint review of the storm at their monthly meeting last month. Following Winter Storm Elliott, the agencies released preliminary findings that were followed up with a more in-depth report later in the year. 

But that doesn’t appear to be the plan for this time around. This high-level presentation seems to be all they are releasing. No comprehensive, quantitative investigation of all the challenges during the storm, just a high-level, “qualitative” review based mostly on voluntary interviews from around 20 gas and power industry players, all of whom are anonymized in the presentation, even when referencing information that is public elsewhere.

To its credit, FERC made sure to say there’s still more work to be done to improve the winter reliability of our energy system. But the extent of what challenges took place are still unknown, and those that are known were flattened and minimized in FERC’s statement on the review.

Emergency alerts and blackstart impacts

Here’s what happened during the storm:

Multiple “energy emergency alerts”, or EEAs, were declared during Storm Gerri/Heather, including a third-level alert (EEA-3) declared by an unnamed grid operator who couldn’t meet contingency reserve requirements, which are essentially extra grid resources in case too many unexpected failures take place. Under NERC rules, an EEA-3 is declared when rolling blackouts are “imminent or in progress.” This means that the unspecified grid operator got very close to having to shut certain customers’ power off via rolling blackouts to avoid a grid-wide, catastrophic blackout.

For context, only a less severe EEA-2 was declared during a 2018 winter storm in the Midwest and south central U.S., but FERC still published an in-depth 161-page report of what occurred during that storm, which included quantitative data on generator failures.

Another concerning detail of Storm Gerri/Heather that was revealed, but left mostly undiscussed, was the unplanned outages of “blackstart” resources. These are electricity resources that are supposed to be available in the event of a grid-wide blackout, since they have the ability to start up without external electricity from the grid.

FERC noted that blackstart resources experienced failures due to the same types of challenges UCS discussed in its January report: fuel supply issues—which are generally most pronounced at fossil gas plants—and plant equipment failures.

How many blackstart resources were actually affected? It is unclear because FERC and NERC aren’t publishing any quantitative data on generator failures. Their presentation noted these data are “not yet available,” but they also communicated during the actual meeting that this was simply “not within the scope” of the review.

Gas system issues persist

While no quantitative data was provided on the power grid side, the presentation did show that gas production dropped by about 15%, likely constraining the amount of fuel that could get delivered to gas plants. This was not as severe but close to the 19% and 23% drops during storms Elliott and Uri, respectively.

FERC staff also noted a failure of a key gas storage facility’s communication network, which caused an outage of the facility. The storage facility wasn’t named, but the description aligned with the reported issues at a facility in western Washington state co-owned by Puget Sound Energy, which had to ask customers to reduce gas use during the storm.

More transparency is essential

Based on FERC and NERC’s high-level review, it certainly seems that progress has been made on the gas and power industries’ winter preparedness and communication since late 2022. Lessons from Winter Storm Elliott and other previous winter storms are apparently taking hold, which is of course welcome news.

Nevertheless, FERC and NERC’s lack of transparency on this more recent storm is a significant misstep. If these lessons from the past storms are demonstrably being learned, then why aren’t they showing the data on generator failures? Faltering energy system performance—which almost caused rolling blackouts—and insufficient scrutiny and transparency after the fact must not be the new normal with winter storms.

For this latest storm, certain grid operators such as PJM Interconnection and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator have been relatively more transparent about the amount of generator outages, which has been their primary concern when it comes to the risk of rolling winter blackouts—as opposed to transmission facility outages, for example. This storm wasn’t as severe as Elliott in 2022, which mitigated the impact to power plants, but MISO still experienced nearly three-quarters of the outages it had in the late 2022 storm.

The science suggests climate change is exacerbating extreme winter storms in the United States, but to what extent is yet to be known. The Pacific Northwest was hit uncharacteristically hard by Winter Storm Gerri/Heather, which FERC’s interviewees for this latest review described as a 1-in-30-year event for the region. The presentation noted record-low temperatures that were set in western Oregon and Washington, and Puget Sound Energy said record energy demand was also set.

It’s critical to understand these types of evolving threats to our energy system and how industry is responding to them. However, that understanding is being hindered by a lack of robust investigation and transparency. In the era of increasing extreme weather events due to climate change, policymakers should make power plant outage and other grid data easily accessible and publicly available. This will not only help us better prepare for future extreme weather events, but it will also help hold energy industry players accountable in planning for such events.