ERCOT defends power outages amid Texas winter storm, says system was near collapse

Eleanor Dearman
·5 min read

Representatives from the Energy Reliability Council of Texas shed some light Wednesday on why millions were left in the dark last week.

As a winter storm covered much of the state, ERCOT — the nonprofit that manages the state’s power grid — ordered controlled outages to prevent a statewide blackout.

But what were supposed to be rolling outages spanned hours and days for some Texans.

In the board’s first meeting since the outages, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness began his presentation by acknowledging the devastation, including loss of life.

“What ERCOT wants to do today, what ERCOT wants to do with the legislative hearings tomorrow and going forward, is provide explanation, not excuses,” Magness said.

He described record-setting temperatures that forced out nearly half of electricity generation — 48.6% — at the highest point. Oncor, which serves much of the state and North Texas, was responsible for more than a third of the ordered electricity shed.

Ahead of the storm, Magness said ERCOT was aware there could be 11,100 megawatts of forced outages due to gas restrictions. ERCOT also recognized there could be losses in wind generation as a result of ice. Accommodations were made to bolster staffing, including waiving COVID-19 restrictions so more people could work on sites, Magness said.

Calls were held with transmission operators and rules waived to aid power generation, he said, later noting that steps were also taken to get information out to the public about the extreme weather.

By the afternoon of Feb. 14, the storm was blowing in and, at 7:06 p.m., ERCOT saw a new winter peak for demand.

“More electricity was used on the ERCOT system on a winter’s day than had ever been used in history,” Magness said.

Supply outpaced demand. By 12:15 a.m. emergency operations were enacted and at 1:20 a.m. rotating outages were instituted.

But the situation continued to deteriorate. At one point, the state was minutes away from a potential blackout.

“If we have a blackout in the system, the system is out for an indeterminate amount of time, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to bring back,” Magness said, adding the board may have been having a conversation Wednesday focused on restoring power had that happened.

Texans to ERCOT: ‘This is unacceptable’

The board received written comments from 32 people ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, many of whom criticized ERCOT’s response to the winter storm and posed questions about its operations.

One man said his family was without power for three days — something he said was ‘unacceptable’ and preventable. He and others wanted the board to come up with solutions to equip generators for future winters. Some questioned why more wasn’t done to warn people and asked that Texans not be responsible for costs incurred because of the storm.

“Never again should the public be warned to prepare for rolling blackouts, and then experience 60+ hours of a constant blackout,” said Aundie Dickinson of Jones County, near Abilene.

Dickinson lamented the water shortages and how people went to great lengths to stay warm.

Magness acknowledged that communication with the board fell short.

“I feel that the issue with ERCOT’s concerns with regards to this event should have been more broadly communicated at our Feb. 9 board meeting and that the concerns with regard to the upcoming weather event should have been communicated more specifically,” said board member Jacqueline Sargent, expressing frustration.

Magness apologized that the subject wasn’t covered more in depth and said the communication was more focused on those operating power generators.

Board members resign, Texas Legislature prepares for probe

ERCOT has received widespread criticism, prompting investigations by the Texas Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott and the Public Utility Commission have also been scrutinized in recent days. Abbott appoints the PUC commissioners.

Representatives from ERCOT and industry officials are set to testify before state lawmakers Thursday, as the elected officials begin their investigation into the outages and craft responsive laws.

Abbott has made ERCOT reform and the winterization of generators a priority for consideration. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday also announced that ERCOT reform and “power grid stability” are at the top of his to-do list, after the state budget.

One of the sharpest rebukes of ERCOT’s board has centered on several members who reside out of state. The members — Chair Sally Talberg, Vice Chair Peter Cramton and board members Terry Bulger, Raymond Hepper and Vanessa Anesetti-Para — participated in their final board meeting Wednesday after announcing their resignations on Tuesday.

Talberg lives in Michigan and has served on the Michigan Public Service Commission. Crampton lives in California and works as a professor of economics. They were elected to their leadership roles on Feb. 9.

“We’re here today because we felt it was important to be part of the process to begin to evaluate what happened,” Talberg said at the meeting’s start.

It’s imperative to find solutions to the obstacles faced last week, said Sargent, who is also the general manager of Austin Energy.

“People in Texas should not have to endure such hardship — or anywhere for that matter — in 2021,” she said. “And so, we’ve really got to roll up our sleeves and solve this problem.”

But an industry-wide commitment will be needed, Magness said.

“It affects everybody on the system, and it affects, most importantly, the people that we serve,” Magness said. “And they were not well served for those days when the outages could not move.”