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The Effects of Cold Weather on Natural Gas Power Plants

Did you know? About half of the power plants in Texas are fueled by natural gas. But what happens when that power source isn’t available? Cold weather brings with it many challenges for power distribution, including high demand for natural gas and cold temperatures impairing power plant operation.

Natural gas power plants in Texas are built to withstand the hot and arid conditions of the summer. This means that critical parts of the structure like pipes and tanks are exposed to the elements to avoid overheating. In other parts of the world, everything used to move air, water, and gas around the plant would be enclosed to protect it from inclement weather. In order to prepare for the cold temperatures of winter and everything that comes with it, natural gas power plants should winterize, transitioning equipment and procedures to keep things running. But sometimes, even winterization isn’t enough.

That’s what happened to the Vistra Corp. power plant in Midlothian, Texas in February 2021. Not only is February a peak time for power demand, but that year a historic storm rolled through the area, with temperatures dropping well below freezing and snow, sleet, and freezing rain persisting for just over a week. Winterization helped protect the Midlothian natural gas plant, but due to gas shortages, it was only able to operate at 30% capacity for much of the time. Other power plants in the state fared even worse because they had not winterized after the last big storm in 2011. Millions of Texans were without power in the coldest weather event in 10 years as a result.

What Is Winterization?

Winterization is an important part of preparing a plant, refinery, or other facility for cold weather. This transition helps to allow power plants to continue operating safely, and at the capacity required, despite inclement weather.

Winterization includes training workers and implementing procedures and upgrades such as:

  • Insulation
  • Temperature monitors
  • Heat tracing
  • Windbreaks
  • Air dryers

Similarly, when the cold weather has passed, procedures should be in place to return the facility back to normal operation. While this is standard procedure for power plants in areas prone to cold weather, retroactively equipping power plants to withstand the cold is costly and takes time. For this reason, warmer places like Texas didn’t adopt winterization protocols until recently.

Do Texas Power Plants Have to Winterize?

As of December 2021, as a direct result of the catastrophic storm and blackout in February 2021, all Texas power plants – a total of 855 – are required to winterize each year. These energy reform laws called for the submission of winter weather preparedness reports to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

The laws did not, however, address the winterization of critical natural gas facilities, which means that power plants like the one in Midlothian could still be in jeopardy until new rules are announced in March 2023.

What Happens If a Power Plant Doesn’t Winterize?

As we saw in 2011 and again in 2021, winterization is a critical step to protect not only the power grid, but also power plants and their workers. The damage caused by cold weather can limit the output of the power plant or, worse, cause dangerous equipment failure that put workers’ lives at risk.

Cold temperatures can cause catastrophic freeze damage to facilities such as:

  • Frozen pipes, which may lead to leaks once they thaw
  • Frozen compressed air systems, caused by high moisture levels in the air
  • Broken power lines, snapped by the weight of accumulated ice

Representing Plant Workers’ Rights

Winterization is a crucial step in keeping the lights on throughout the winter, but it’s the workers who are put most at risk when these measures are not followed. Our plant accident attorneys stand up for workers and their families, representing those who pay the price when companies are willing to cut corners to maximize profits.

Contact Arnold & Itkin today at (888) 493-1629 to learn about your options after a power plant accident. We fight for what’s right, no matter what.

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