Energy & Environment

Harris County To Debate Pulling Out Of ERCOT Grid After Winter Storm Outages

The proposal by Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia could cost the county billions of dollars with uncertain benefits, according to one energy expert.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia

County leaders on Friday will debate a proposal to leave the power grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, after ERCOT has come under fire for its role in sustained power outages that left millions without heat and electricity amid the winter storm.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the county attorney to look into what power he and his fellow commissioners have to pull Harris County out of the state’s power grid. In a letter to Judge Lina Hidalgo and his fellow commissioners, Garcia wrote that he wants “discussion and possible action” on steps Harris County could take to leave the grid, decreasing reliance on ERCOT’s infrastructure.

“I can't speak for the other members of court, but I am concerned with the (state leadership’s) inability to keep promises they have made to their constituents during disasters,” read a statement from Garcia on Monday. “This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can't be trusted to do itself."

ERCOT has been heavily criticized for its handling of the outages, which left as many as 4.5 million people without power across the state. The grid manager said the storm brought “unprecedented demand,” and what were originally planned to be rolling blackouts eventually turned into days of power loss for people across the state.

Four ERCOT board members who live outside of Texas planned to resign on Wednesday, according to public notices. The Texas Legislature has promised hearings to hold ERCOT accountable, and Gov. Greg Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass legislation to further regulate the grid manager and weatherize generators across the state.

In his letter, Garcia noted that neighboring Liberty County is one of several in East Texas under the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, an independent system operator managed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and part of the national grid. ERCOT, which covers 90% of the state, operates independent of the federal grid.

Because it wasn’t connected to either the western or eastern interconnected grids, ERCOT could not easily borrow surplus energy supply from surrounding states, which was one of the reasons for such sustained outages.

“Harris County's physical proximity to areas under the Eastern Interconnect raises the question of whether it may be removed from the Texas Interconnect and placed under the Eastern Interconnect,” Garcia wrote.

The problem, according to University of Houston energy fellow Ed Hirs, is that disconnecting Harris County from ERCOT and switching it to MISO could be far more trouble than it's worth.

"It's not as simple as unplugging an extension cord to the rest of the state and then plugging it into another one coming from Louisiana," Hirs said. "Harris County, the Houston area, is one of the great electricity consumers in the state, and we're also one of the great electricity producers. You just can't pack up and leave a network such as we have right now."

Hirs said such a project could easily cost the county billions of dollars, and render it vulnerable to power outages caused by problems many states away.

"Rewiring Harris County to plug into a grid that operates from Louisiana to Manitoba is certainly doable," Hirs said. "It's possible. Are you going to spend the money and get more reliable service? And the answer is unknown. So, what's the cost-benefit analysis?"

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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