State of Texas: Who’s responsible and how do we keep a winter storm crisis from happening again?

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — After a record-breaking winter storm practically shut down Texas this past week, lawmakers are preparing to return to the Capitol with new tasks at hand.

Gov. Abbott and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s electric flow, are being criticized for what’s being seen as poor disaster preparation after energy generators for the state’s grid experienced issues as temperatures dropped at the beginning of this week.

Although ERCOT expected high-energy demand this winter, it did not account for the catastrophic surge in demand caused by the historic winter storm. Power supply dropped dangerously low when generating instruments were frozen on Monday. An estimated 30,000 megawatts of power generation went offline — as demand for electricity hit all-time highs.

Although temperatures outside have warmed up, millions are still dealing with the aftermath of this state-wide crisis. Gov. Abbott outlined five priorities to help Texans begin to recover from the historic storm.

  1. Restoring electricity to all Texans. Many parts of the state are still experiencing blackouts because of damaged power lines.
  2. Restoring clean water. Gov. Abbott said he is evaluating waivers in order to speed up the process.
  3. Addressing the broken water pipes. The governor is requesting a major disaster declaration from the White House, so Texans can apply for help from FEMA if their insurance doesn’t cover the damage to their house.
  4. Providing essential resources to Texans. The National Guard has already been deployed to provide warmth and food.
  5. Lastly, reforming ERCOT. The manager of the state’s power grid says Texas was moments away from a total system collapse.

The governor also added the mandatory winterizing of power generator systems and allocating money to make that possible to the emergency items for this legislative session.

ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness said Texas was “seconds and minutes” away from losing power for weeks or even months.

“If it’s not true, then there are serious consequences because of that,” Abbott said. “If it is true, there is serious action that needs to be taken by the state of Texas.”

What went wrong? Energy expert weighs in on Texas energy crisis

On Tuesday, Gov. Abbott called on Texas lawmakers to open an investigation on the ERCOT outages, but those lawmakers had already announced their investigation.

The Texas Senate Business and Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing this Thursday. The Senate Jurisprudence Committee also plans to hold hearings. Both committees are looking into the legal implications of what occurred this past week on the part of ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission.

House Speaker Dade Phelan called for a joint hearing of the State Affairs Committee and the Energy Resources Committee on the House side of the investigation. The House will be investigating what caused the blackouts and why it took so long to restore power.

ERCOT’s board chair scheduled a virtual meeting for next Wednesday to address the power problems occurring statewide. This will occur a day before the hearing at the Texas House.

Lessons not learned from 2011 winter storm

As the temperatures rise after the winter storm, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has been taking more heat. However, there are new questions about steps private power generators could have taken to prevent outages caused, in part, by their frozen equipment and infrastructure.

ERCOT: Power outages meant to save Texas from longer-lasting ‘cascading, catastrophic blackout’

Equipment locking up and taking down power plants, entire natural gas infrastructure systems, starting at the well heads, being frozen and even ice grinding wind turbine blades to a halt — these conditions echo the ones described in a report following a large winter storm in 2011.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation found Texas power generators were “reactive as opposed to being proactive in their approach to winterization and preparedness.”

“The lack of any state, regional or Reliability Standards that directly require generators to perform winterization left winter-readiness dependent on plant or corporate choices,” the report read.

FERC and NERC made industry recommendations to prevent these types of outages from happening again, and as the standard-setting bodies for the industry, these guidelines became best practices for power generators.

‘System-wide failure’: Energy expert says outages could have been prevented — at a cost

However, Dr. Dave Tuttle, research associate in the Energy Institute at University of Texas at Austin, noted that’s all they are — best practices, but not requirements or laws.

“The point is there’s a lot of these plants around the world in colder regions, and the technology is there. It’s a matter of: do they get deployed in our region given how seldom we have these events,” he said. “Those are not mandatory.”

It’s up to the individual generators to spare the cost and take steps to winterize their equipment. While they must submit winterization plans to the Public Utility Commission of Texas, there are no specific measures that must be taken across the industry.

ERCOT said they do voluntary “spot-checks” for around a sixth of the state’s generators to make sure they are following best practices. This past year, those checks happened virtually instead of on-site because of the pandemic. Ultimately, the council is not in charge of keeping power generators up to speed.

In a press call on Wednesday, ERCOT’s Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin said, “they have financial incentives to stay online, but there’s no regulation at this point.”

He and ERCOT president and CEO Bill Magness both emphasized that their primary goal at this point was to balance the state’s supply and demand, in order to get power back to Texas residents.

“Right now, the way we can best serve Texans is getting the load in balance,” Magness said. “If folks want to look at how ERCOT is run and who runs it, obviously that is part of the investigation into how we do things in the future. I mean, all of those things are on the table.”

In addition to calls for state investigations into the power crisis during this storm, this week FERC and NERC also announced a joint inquiry into what happened across the southern and mid-western parts of the country, in order to “identify problems with the bulk power system” and how to move forward.

When the ice melts, Tuttle says there will a reckoning on how the industry handles winter weather preparations — and needs to be.

“Because this is going to happen again,” he said. “It may be a few years. It may be another decade.”

Still, he thinks small changes in requirements, even “tweaks” in policy at the local, state and federal level could have a big impact.

“People don’t want to hear that a little bit of extra money — and it will be millions of dollars — could have been invested because we have millions of people hurting from this. They don’t want to hear that we didn’t invest or it doesn’t happen that often. They just want to get the lights back on.”

Questions about ERCOT board members from outside Texas

The chair of the company which manages 26 million Texans’ utilities does not live in Texas. In total, five of the board members are not Texas residents.

A policy loophole allowed ERCOT to appoint five board seats to people who do not call Texas home. Unaffiliated directors are highly suggested to be Texas residents, but it’s not a requirement. The board is comprised of 15 seats, with one vacant 16th seat that is also an unaffiliated director position.

The board members are Chairwoman Sally Talberg of Michigan, Vice Chairman Peter Cramton of Maryland, board member Terry Bulger of Illinois, Raymond Hepper of Maine and Vanessa Anesetti-Parra of Canada.

In a virtual press conference on Wednesday, ERCOT Chief Executive Officer Bill Magness was asked by a media outlet how he plans to best serve Texas when their chairs live in another state.

“Right now, the way that we can best serve Texans is to focus on getting generation and load and balance in working with our control room operators and other staff with the generators to get power back on for everyone. That’s the priority right now. I think if folks want to look at how ERCOT is run and who runs it, obviously it’s part of the investigation of what we’re doing in the future, all those things are on the table. But I think there was no impact of the chair of the ERCOT board of directors,” Magness responded.

Lawmakers across the state questioned the reliability of board members who do not live in the state they serve.

“We have to look at the leadership and we have to look at the function and we have to look at how we’re setting policies that allow us to use the resources that we have,” Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, told KXAN’s sister station KETK. “It would be like if you lived in a grocery store and you were starving to death, it would only be by your own choice. We live in a state with the most abundant energy sources on the planet. There’s no reason we should be starving for energy,” Schaefer said.

Just 10 years ago, Texas experienced a similar catastrophe to this power outage. In February 2011, 3.2 million Texans lost electricity and water after a snow storm ravaged the southwestern states.

A 357-page Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report outlined exactly what went wrong to lead to the blackouts a decade ago.

“Combining forced outages with scheduled outages, approximately one-third of the total ERCOT fleet was unavailable at the lowest point of the event,” the report reads. “These extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation. Had ERCOT not acted promptly to shed load, it would very likely have suffered widespread, uncontrolled blackouts throughout the entire ERCOT Interconnection.”

Three current ERCOT board members were on the board in 2011, Nick Fehrenbach, Clifton Karnei and Kevin Gresham.

Winter weather raises worries for Texans seeking second COVID vaccine

The winter weather this week is not only causing delays on grocery and fuel shipments, it’s also causing problems for COVID-19 shipments, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“With the winter weather, really across the country, the CDC and FedEx and UPS haven’t been shipping vaccine through the early part of the week. They did get some doses of Pfizer vaccine out,” DSHS spokesperson Chris Van Deusen explained, saying while Pfizer was able to ship about 35,000 doses to north Texas on Wednesday, most other shipments are on pause.

“We’re literally put on ice for right now. And so that’s, you know, I think things are really just on pause both on the shipment side as well as the vaccine administration side,” Van Deusen said, pointing to many hubs and primary care providers that have canceled appointments this week due to treacherous road conditions or power outages.

That’s causing concern for those scheduled to receive their timely second dose of the vaccine this week, like Andre Harris, who has a chronic illness qualifying him in the 1B group.

“My second shot was supposed to be scheduled for Wednesday of this week. However, because of the snowstorm, of course, nothing can be done,” Harris said. “It is very frustrating. It seems the last couple of months have been disaster upon disaster.”

Harris said while he understands it’s no one’s fault, he’s concerned about when his doctor will be able to get him rescheduled.

“I’ve been on a ventilator before due to my sickle cell. I’m not trying to be on it again for a virus that I can potentially protect myself against,” Harris said.

Others across the state are running into the same problem.

“We don’t want to put the vaccine in jeopardy by trying to ship it or trying to get people out on the roads, you know, right now, when it’s just not safe,” Van Deusen said.

Phillipe Nassif’s parents in Houston are now having to deal with not only the anxiety of no power or water for days but trying to figure out when they can be rescheduled for their second dose, which was cancelled this week due to weather.

“Now they’ve been told that it is postponed indefinitely,” Nassif explained. “We were really relieved to hear that they got the first dose and were scheduled to get the second dose. And my anxiety levels have been through the roof the last several days.”

Nassif is living in Washington, D.C. right now, and the Houston native has had limited contact with his parents and his brother living in Houston this week due to power outages.

“We’ve survived the pandemic. And, you know, Texas had its share of natural disasters over the last several years, and now we have this new disaster. And it doesn’t show that there’s any end in sight,” Nassif said.

Nassif and Harris both share similar concerns, especially when it comes to missing the window.

“What I’m most concerned about is that I will have to try to start all over again,” Harris said.

But DSHS said those who don’t receive their second dose within six weeks of their first will not have to start over.

“It’s not a situation where you would have to then get two more doses. It’s just a situation where people should get that second dose as soon as possible. And as soon as it’s safe,” Van Deusen explained.

DSHS said it is encouraging any providers with power outages to administer any vaccine they have, even if it’s to those who aren’t in 1A or 1B, to avoid wasting vaccine. Van Desusen said operations should return to normal soon.

“We’ll be able to pick this up when when conditions improve, and get back to what we were doing, which is, you know, well over 100,000 doses a day,” he said.

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