Attempting to prevent a catastrophic electrical grid collapse, Texans endured mass power outages instituted by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) in response to the unprecedented February winter storm that plagued the state. Leaving citizens chilled for several days and nights, electricity moguls are experiencing an icy response of their own from vengeful Texas lawmakers.
Finding himself in the crosshairs of Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, ERCOT CEO, Bill Magness defended the organization’s response. With efforts to prevent a complete grid failure that could have lasted several weeks, he explained their response was the correct one to be made.
When asked if he would have changed any direction of the ERCOT response, Magness said, “As I sit here now, I don’t believe I would.”
Apparently, Magness’ response was found without merit, and he was terminated from his position on March 3rd. This comes after numerous requests have been issued for his resignation.
Summarizing the damage
Accounting for the mayhem, lawmakers attempted to identify the root of the disaster. Through a course of hearings, the damage was tallied up.
- 4.5 million homes were left without power
- Damages were estimated in the billions of dollars range
- Numerous deaths across the state, which have yet to be totaled
Seeking answers, the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees participated in a hearing while the Committee on Business and Commerce conducted a hearing of its own within the state Senate.
Because ERCOT was experiencing serious criticism, Texas Governor Greg Abbott pressured six board members to process their resignations. Testimony revealed that an abundance of blame could be bestowed upon energy executives, state regulators and Texas electric grid management personnel. Because turbines froze, power generators refrained from staying online and natural gas lines could not deliver gas. It was estimated that almost 50% of Texas energy generators were not functioning.
Ignoring early warning
Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist, Bob Rose, addressed members of the Texas Senate. Interpreting the data, he forecasted the storm’s potential impact during early February and attempted to warn officials of severe potential damage to power lines and water sources. According to his research, these temperatures were the coldest experienced since 1895.
“What I clearly said was, this is going to be pipe-busting type cold, that (it’s) going to take a whole different level of protection to protect those pipes,” said Rose.
“I will tell you when I did reach out, and this isn’t blaming anybody; I just was surprised at the lack of urgency that I got from some of the officials and the agencies,” said Morgan. “I don’t know if they didn’t see it coming or what, but I have to tell you, and I’m being as honest as I can be, the level of urgency was not there in my opinion.”
Power outages caused by winter storms are nothing new to the Longhorn state. In 2011, a winter blast plagued the state with power losses, which propelled state leadership to pass legislation requiring submission of weatherizing contingency plans for generators. It, however, allowed systems to be voluntarily winterized.
This late February storm left Texas in far worse condition with temperature lows and duration to match. Michael Webber, an energy system expert with the University of Texas, contradicted this comparison and described it as a replay of the 2011 chain of events.
“It’s the same movie, but worse,” said Webber on Texas Public Radio. “And seemed like we didn’t even learn the lessons from 2011. Or, so few of us learned lessons, there were very few solutions implemented. And it just makes us look like we’re slow learners.”
Future course of action
Although testimony lectured that the state’s blackout plans required updating to ensure power plants were not shut down by planned outages, others argued that regulators have seemingly diluted policy to provide infrastructure with winterization plans. Morgan, however, lectured that winterizing infrastructure is only a piece of a proactive solution.
“We don’t put structures around our equipment down here,” said Morgan. “Why? Because in the summer when it’s 105 degrees you’d bake inside there, the equipment would fail.”
Quest for answers
ERCOT officials painted a picture of concern stating that during the storm, the grid was approximately 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from collapse or complete failure. Texas State Affairs Committee member, State Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring, stated his future expectations included the requirement of larger reserves of power to be had for electricity generators. He further expressed concern for questions that have gone unanswered.
“Were we selling off electricity to other states? And when did we stop if we were, when we knew this event was coming?” said Harless, “How about natural gas? Were we selling our natural gas off to other states? And when did we stop, when we knew this was going to be a big event?”
According to Greg Goldman, R-Fort Worth and House Energy Committee Chair, all Texas constituents will be able to hear the plans of industry officials, regulators and grid operators. What went wrong and how the issues will be prevented in the future will be made public to all.
Furthering ERCOT scrutiny, State Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, announced a Senate Committee would be held to investigate the actions taken, and not taken, that could have potentially created the disastrous event.
“As critical entities to the State,” said Huffman, “their legal responsibilities to the people they serve must be crystal clear in state law. If they are ambiguities, inconsistencies or potential deficiencies in state law, they must be addressed immediately through legislative action.”