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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.

The main goal of winterization is to keep the necessary air, water, gas, and oil moving despite the drastic difference in temperature. Each of these elements is critical in the operation of a plant; clean, dry air, for example, is necessary for gas plants to run power-generating turbines. Running water, too, is integral, and natural gas must be able to flow to and throughout a gas plant. When any of these elements stop moving, operating the plant not only becomes increasingly more dangerous but also less effective.

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

  • Insulation
  • Temperature monitors
  • Heat tracing
  • Adding pipe jackets
  • 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.

Protecting Workers with Winterization

It’s not just pipes and tanks that need to be winterized. The workers themselves must be protected from the cold, so personnel areas such as warehouse areas, equipment rooms, and production floors need to be temperature controlled. PPE such as warm-weather gloves that protect workers from the cold and the hazards of their work may even be provided. This can be done temporarily with area heaters that are powered by either electricity or steam.

Slippery surfaces must also be addressed, especially when the weather calls for snow or ice.

Companies can address slippery surfaces throughout the plant by prioritizing these steps:

  • Spread salt on sidewalks, in parking lots, and other essential outdoor areas
  • Mop up water that has accumulated on floors
  • Place caution signs near slippery areas and attend to them as soon as possible

Workplaces with 10 or more employees are required by OSHA to have a written emergency plan. Companies must prepare their workers for the possibility of emergency situations, especially before high-risk periods such as winterization and winter itself. Explaining the impact on operations and the plan for emergency communications can help improve safety during these dangerous times. Simulating emergency drills and performing job hazard analysis can provide important data regarding hazards, allowing the company time to make changes and set standards to help prevent disaster.

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

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. Companies have a responsibility to their employees to put safety over profits.

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