outageprobe

Texas regulators ordered an investigation into rolling blackouts that struck the state's electric grid on Feb. 2 and 3, including whether market manipulation played a role in disrupting natural gas and electricity supplies.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas asked the state's independent energy-market monitor, Daniel Jones, to conduct a probe to see if power generators, pipeline companies or others broke market rules. Among the questions are whether some firms faked power-plant problems to push prices higher or were slow to restart plants that were off line.

Officials said the probe will look at price patterns and power plant outages. An estimated 50 generating units in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid failed and wholesale electricity prices briefly spiked.

Brad Buecker, contributing editor to Power Engineering magazine, said the greatest wintertime problem he saw during his career at power plants was freezing of pneumatic instrument lines. "Failure of these will easily cause unit trips," he said. Heat tracing is often used to keep lines from freezing, but gaps in the tracing and failure of the tracing can occur. Buecker said that gaps in insulation or in the tracing itself was often the greatest problem.

The Wall Street Journal said ERCOT is considering whether it should require better weatherization at power plants. Trip Doggett, ERCOT CEO, said it will be working with generation owners to "understand why and what can be done" to prevent the sort of breakdowns that hit the state's electrical network. Among other problems, the breakdowns were caused by equipment freezing and cracking.

Representatives of Luminant and NRG Energy Inc. said extreme cold forced outages they couldn't prevent and they got plants back up quickly.

Doggett said generators complained about equipment failures caused by temperatures that were in the single digits as well as natural-gas shortages, meaning some couldn't get the fuel they needed to run power plants.

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