Energy & Environment

ERCOT CEO Defends Power Outages As Texas Lawmakers Probe Winter Storm Response

Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said widespread blackouts during last week’s winter storm were necessary to prevent grid failure.

Curtis Morgan, the CEO of Vistra Corp., at table left, testifies as the Committees on State Affairs and Energy Resources holds a joint public hearing to consider the factors that led to statewide electrical blackouts, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Austin, Texas. The hearings were the first in Texas since a blackout that was one of the worst in U.S. history, leaving more than 4 million customers without power and heat in subfreezing temperatures.

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Updated 11:11 p.m. CT

The head of the state's power grid operator on Thursday defended the group’s decision to order widespread blackouts during last week's winter storm, telling state lawmakers that doing so helped prevent a larger disaster.

Last week’s freezing weather led to skyrocketing demand and unprecedented strain on the power grid, forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to enact sustained outages across the state to keep its grid from collapsing.

But in response to a question from state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said that he had no regrets about the response, and that he made the right call to avoid a major grid failure that could have left Texans in the dark for weeks.

“You wouldn't have changed anything in terms of your play calling during those critical hours?” Whitmire asked.

“As I sit here now, I don't believe I would," Magness responded.

The exchange came during a day of hearings into the outages, billed as a chance for lawmakers to get to the bottom of a failure that knocked out power to 4.5 million homes, cost billions of dollars in damages, and played a factor in a still unknown number of deaths across the state.

The House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees held a joint hearing, and in the state Senate, the Committee on Business and Commerce held its own hearing, as ERCOT has come under intense scrutiny. Six members of ERCOT’s board resigned this week amid pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott.

WATCH THE HOUSE FEED | WATCH THE SENATE FEED

In hours of testimony from energy executives, state regulators and managers of the Texas electric grid, blame was plentiful. Most importantly, power generators failed to stay online as turbines and coal piles froze and — the biggest factor — natural gas lines failed to deliver gas.

In all, nearly half of the state's energy generators were knocked offline.

Members of the Texas Senate also heard from Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority, who said he saw the storm’s impact coming during the first week of February, and tried to warn everyone he could that conditions would severely damage power lines and water systems.

“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,” Rose said.

Rose added that these were the coldest temperatures Texas had recorded since 1895.

Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, speaks during a Senate Business and Commerce Committee hearing into winter storm power outages, on Feb. 25, 2021.

In 2011, another winter storm in Texas widespread power outages. That hours-long event led state leaders to pass a law requiring generators submit weatherization plans, but voluntarily winterize their systems.

Last week’s storm was exponentially worse in terms of temperature and duration than the 2011 storm, but Michael Webber — an energy system expert at the University of Texas — says in many ways it's a replay.

"It’s the same movie, but worse,” Webber told 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.”

At Thursday’s joint House committee hearing, Texas energy executives from NRG Energy and Vistra Corp. said weather conditions last week were unprecedented — far exceeding freezing temperatures in 2011 when Texas also experienced blackouts.

But top Texas officials were made well aware of the possible impact of the storm before it hit, according to Curt Morgan, CEO of Irving-based Vistra Corp.

According to Morgan, his staff reached out to both ERCOT and the governor’s office in the days leading up to the weather disaster, but didn’t get much of a response.

"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,” Morgan said. “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, the level of urgency was not there in my opinion."

Witnesses testified about how the state needs to update its blackout plans to make sure power plants aren’t accidentally shut off by planned outages, and about how mandates to winterize infrastructure have been watered down in the past by regulators.

But Morgan also said winterizing infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle, and could even backfire.

“We don’t put structures around our equipment down here,” Morgan said. “Why? Because in the summer when it’s 105 degrees you’d bake inside there, the equipment would fail.”

Executives also assured committee members that most Texans would likely not see sky-high electricity costs in the wake of the storm.

“None of our residential customers will see an increase in their bill related to the wholesale power prices we experienced last week,” NRG CEO Mauricio Gutierrez said.

Some Texas residents with variable-rate plans saw utility bills in the thousands this month.

Gutierrez also told House members that the Texas Legislature has a key role to play in preventing this type of crisis in the future.

“I think there is an opportunity by the legislature to define what is reliability, what is resilience, what is the standard that we need to have given the more extreme weather we’re seeing due to climate change?” he said.

Last week, about 4 million people across Texas went without power for days as temperatures dropped below freezing, placing unprecedented demand on the power grid that led to generator failures. Planned "rotating outages" instead became sustained blackouts as ERCOT struggled to manage the grid.

A joint hearing of the Texas House of Representatives State Affairs and Energy Resources committees on Feb. 25, 2020. The committees were tasked with investigating the power outages caused by the winter storm disaster.

At a Wednesday hearing, ERCOT officials painted a picture of a system on the brink of collapse, detailing a timeline of events that showed the grid was just 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from total failure.

FROM KUT IN AUSTIN | Texas' Power Grid Was 4 Minutes And 37 Seconds Away From Collapsing. Here's How It Happened

State Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring, who is on the State Affairs Committee, told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen on Tuesday he expected legislation that would require electricity generators to maintain bigger reserves of power.

And he said there were questions he wanted answered.

“Were we selling off electricity to other states? And when did we stop if we were, when we knew this event was coming?” Harless said. “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?”

In a press release, House Energy Resources Committee Chair Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said the joint hearing “will provide an opportunity for all Texans to hear from industry officials, regulators, and grid operators to get an explanation and understanding of what went wrong and the steps they are taking to make certain this never happens again."

In a statement, State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, announced that her Senate Committee on Jurisprudence will be holding a hearing on March 4 looking into actions taken — or not taken — by ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission that may have contributed to the disaster.

“As critical entities to the State," Huffman said, "their legal responsibilities to the people they serve must be crystal clear in state law. If there are ambiguities, inconsistencies, or potential deficiencies in state law, they must be addressed immediately through legislative action."

Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto, Andrew Schneider and the Texas Newsroom’s Becky Fogel.

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