By\u00a0Erin Douglas\r\nTexas utility regulators on Thursday approved a rule requiring power companies to better prepare for winter weather \u2014 based on recommendations that were made, but never acted upon, a decade ago by experts and federal regulators after a 2011 storm caused widespread rolling power outages.\r\nThe rule also requires power plants to fix \u201cacute\u201d issues from the February 2021 winter storm, which left millions of Texans without electricity, heat, and clean water for several days when power plants failed to operate during an extended blast of arctic air.\r\nThe February power outages, which caused the deaths of as many as 700 people,\u00a0according to a BuzzFeed analysis, were primarily caused by the inability of power plants to operate in the extreme cold. It was the same problem that Texas faced during the 2011 winter storm.\r\nBut after the 2011 storm, recommendations made by federal regulators\u00a0and\u00a0experts\u00a0to better prepare the Texas electricity grid for winter weather were never implemented by Texas leaders. When the February storm caused even bigger disruptions, state leaders were hammered publicly for ignoring the warnings of 2011.\r\nLawmakers this year passed a sweeping piece of legislation to require power plants to \u201cweatherize\u201d their facilities against extreme weather conditions. They left the details of how to do that up to the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates utilities and is designing the weatherization requirements for power plants, and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state\u2019s oil and gas industry.\r\nThe rule adopted by the PUC on Thursday requires power companies to use \u201cbest efforts\u201d to ensure the operation of critical power plant components during winter weather conditions, including protecting important sensors from the cold.\r\nPower plants can request an exception from the rule if they document their efforts to comply, explain why they couldn\u2019t, and submit a plan to do so later.\r\nPUC commissioners said at an August meeting that a more robust weatherization standard would have to wait until the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid, finishes a weather study with the state\u2019s climatologist to\u00a0determine the range of weather conditions the grid should be able to withstand.\r\nIn the meantime, regulators on Thursday approved a\u00a0shorter-term rule\u00a0that could be implemented for the upcoming winter, using a combination of recommendations and lessons from both the 2011 and 2021 storms.\r\n\u201cWe\u2019ve got to make sure this is in place for this winter,\u201d the PUC's chair, Peter Lake, said during the meeting. \u201cThis rulemaking will be a big step to ensuring that the physical resilience of our grid is vastly improved this winter over last winter.\u201d\r\nBy Dec. 1, companies must submit to regulators a report describing their efforts to prepare plants for winter. ERCOT will conduct inspections to enforce the new rule.\r\nPower generators will be required to implement best practices for extreme weather preparedness as recommended by a 2011 report by federal regulators and a 2012 PUC report that was submitted to the Texas Legislature.\r\nRequirements include preparations to operate during cold temperatures, such as providing training on winter preparations and determining minimum temperatures at which the plant can operate. Companies will also be required to fix any known \u201cacute\u201d issues that arose during the 2020-21 winter season, such as fixing components that broke during the February storm.\r\n\u201cNever before have we had such robust weatherization standards in place with enforcement authority,\u201d Commissioner Lori Cobos said during the Thursday meeting. \u201cI think that is a huge step forward for the industry.\u201d\r\nThe Railroad Commission, meanwhile, is currently designing rules to\u00a0designate certain natural gas facilities as \u201ccritical,\u201d\u00a0a designation that would help electric utility companies avoid cutting power to important facilities during mandatory power outages. The February blackouts were\u00a0aggravated\u00a0by utilities\u00a0inadvertently cutting power to the natural gas facilities\u00a0that supplied many of their power plants with fuel.\r\nCommissioners discuss redesigning ERCOT market\r\nThe PUC is also considering rules to rewrite how Texas\u2019 deregulated electricity market functions.\r\nDuring the February storm, regulators set the price of electricity to the maximum allowed level \u2014 $9,000 per megawatt-hour \u2014 in an effort to boost electricity production. But electricity producers couldn\u2019t come close to meeting demand, and some retail electric providers and electric cooperatives that were forced to pay the top price for what little power was available went bankrupt.\r\nThe huge financial losses forced lawmakers to\u00a0allow companies to seek billions of dollars\u00a0in state-approved bonds, backed by new charges on customers\u2019 bills, to stave off even more bankruptcies and prevent extremely high bills from being passed on to customers.\r\nRegulators aim to\u00a0redesign the electricity market\u00a0to fix that problem as well as to encourage companies to boost power generation so enough is available during both normal operations and extreme weather conditions.\r\nBut this, too, will be a complex rule that will require time for the agency to develop.\r\nSeveral companies, according to comments filed in the PUC\u2019s docket, supported lowering the $9,000 price cap and reforming what\u2019s known as the operating reserve demand curve \u2014 the formula that determines the short-term price for power in the market.\r\nLake, the PUC chair, wrote\u00a0a memo\u00a0exploring several potential changes that also included improving energy efficiency on the consumers\u2019 end \u2014 a proposal that\u2019s been\u00a0called for by outside experts but largely ignored\u00a0by lawmakers. Energy efficiency programs could encourage consumers to reduce the amount of electricity they use in their homes, taking pressure off the grid to supply as much power.\r\nThe market redesign is tangled in the financial interests of nearly every electricity company that operates in Texas; commissioners said there are still many problems and proposals to work through before a final rule is produced.\r\n\u201cThis is a starting point \u2014 a draft of a draft,\u201d Lake said of the market redesign proposal. \u201cWe very much anticipate this being a dynamic and fluid document.\u201d\r\nThis story originally published by the Texas Tribune.