Power failure: Why did millions go without heat as temperatures dropped below freezing?

HOUSTON – At the height of this week’s winter storm, nearly 5 million homes and businesses lost power. Just a week before, state energy leaders assured the public Texas’ power grid was ready and able to handle the coming storm. So, what went wrong?

Not a surprise

“This was in the forecast for a week,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry. “Why were we caught so off guard?”

A week prior to the storm hitting the state, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas assured residents there was ample supply to meet the expected demand and mass power outages were not expected. ERCOT is the non-profit organization that makes sure power flows evenly throughout the state and there is enough power to meet demand. ERCOT does not generate power, Texas is supplied with energy by a variety of private companies.

“At this time, we believe that we have the tools in place to maintain a reliable system,” ERCOT spokesperson Leslie Sopko told KPRC 2 on Feb. 11.

ERCOT officials said that beginning Feb. 8 they began issuing a series of increasingly urgent notices to the private companies that provide power to the state’s grid, warning them to be prepared for extreme temperatures and to cancel any non-critical maintenance operations.

“We asked generators to make sure they had reviewed their fuel supplies and had fuel available,” said Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of systems operations. “They implemented their winterization procedures.”

ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said it wasn’t until after 1 a.m. Monday that officials realized there was a problem.

“We’re seeing the loss across the various generation types, and really, those losses came pretty much the same time as we saw the storm sweep through,” said Magness.

ERCOT reported approximately 185 power generating units, including, coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar energy, went down during the storm. Woodfin said some of the reasons providers went offline are “frozen wind turbines, limited gas supplies, low gas pressure and frozen instrumentation.”

“All that generation tripping offline, that part was not expected because of these winterization things that the generation industry had put in place, where we were doing best practice and everything,” said Woodfin.

Magness said that at that time the decision had to be made to ask energy transmission and delivery companies, like CenterPoint, which serves much of the Houston area, to start cutting power to homes and businesses because supply and demand were greatly out of balance.

“The two things you need to do to keep the grid in balance were going in the opposite direction and that’s where we needed to step in and make sure we were not going to end up with Texas in a blackout,” said Magness.

Magness said that while the decision to cut power to millions prevented the grid from suffering catastrophic damage, he understands the toll it has taken on the state.

“The amount of time that people in Texas have to be out of service for electricity, during a time of extreme cold, is terrible,” Magness said. “It is unacceptable.”

Who is watching the power providers?

With millions still without power, questions quickly turned to who is in charge of making sure power generating units are prepared for severe storms. KPRC 2 Investigates has learned the responsibility falls largely to the individual providers themselves.

In 2011, Texas had similar problems during a nasty winter storm. A more than 300-page report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation noted winterization procedures at power producers were “either inadequate or were not adequately followed.” As a result, power producers were asked to start providing annual winterization plans to the Public Utility Commission. Woodfin said those plans are then spot-checked by ERCOT. Woodfin said about 100 out of approximately 600 plants are spot-checked each year. In the run-up to this storm, Woodfin said that 94 plants were spot-checked virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“We try to focus on ones that have had problems in the past or our new plants that may not be aware of the best practices and those kinds of things,” said Woodfin.

However, Woodfin said these plans are not mandatory.

“At the current time, those weatherization plans are voluntary,” said Woodfin.

Woodfin and Magness said ERCOT can’t force companies to enact a specific weatherization plan but have to trust a company’s need for profit will dictate its level of preparedness. Simply put, if a company goes offline, especially during times when demand is high and the product is scarce, then it’s not making any money.

“You’re not making a profit,” Woodfin said. “You’re actually losing money, and so there are significant penalties of that type but there aren’t like regulatory penalties at the current time.”

Still, Woodfin and Magness said it appeared this system was working because Texas weathered a similar winter storm in 2018.

“We didn’t lose any generators, or very few, in January of 2018,” said Woodfin.

ERCOT officials contend this storm is unlike any experienced before in Texas and new standards will have to be written.

“All of those (winterization processes) were geared around that 2011 level of detail, the severity of that storm,” said Woodfin.

Rice University associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Daniel Cohan, Ph.D., has studied the state’s grid and said Texas has not put enough emphasis on making sure providers are prepared year-round.

“We focus much more on summer heat waves, extreme heat events, droughts and we don’t think as much about the winter storm events,” said Cohan. “To have so many facilities go down at once shows us that we haven’t paid enough attention to maintenance and weatherization and winterization.”

Not like a hamburger

Texas House speaker Dade Phelan has called for a joint hearing on Feb. 25 between the House State Affairs and Energy Resources Committee to examine what went wrong during this storm.

“Texans look forward to hearing some answers,” Phelan wrote in a Tweet announcing the hearing.

Other state lawmakers said there needs to be more accountability and oversight of operations crucial to our state.

“We’re treating power generation like we’re making a hamburger, or we’re trying to sell a hamburger, but the difference between this and a hamburger is when you don’t have hamburgers, people don’t die,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-District 137.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-District 7, said there needs to be a thorough understanding of the issues that caused so many providers to go down at the same time.

“We’re going to have a series of butt-busting hearings about this up in the Senate and in the House because that’s the big question: were they prepared?” said Bettencourt. “Being in business, they have a profit motive to make sure they’re ready to go, otherwise they don’t make any money, but in this case that wasn’t enough.”

Magness said he and other ERCOT officials welcome the hearings.

“There will and there should be a significant review of this event,” said Magness.

Gov. Abbott’s comments put to the KPRC 2 Trust Index

Gov. Greg Abbott has called for ERCOT officials to resign and issued an executive order adding a review of decisions and preparations by ERCOT as an emergency legislative item.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said in a statement Tuesday. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”

However, comments made by Abbott during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity came under immediate scrutiny.

“Our wind and our solar, got shut down and they were, collectively, more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where we were lacking power on a statewide basis,” Abbott said during the interview.

A day before that interview, Abbott tweeted: “The ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas & coal generators.”

ERCOT officials later reported that approximately 18,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy were offline and 28,000 MW of thermal energy -- gas, coal and nuclear -- were offline. Plus, Woodfin and Magness said during peak times in the winter and summer, ERCOT relies less on wind and solar energy to meet demand. Woodfin said 16,000 to 18,000 MW is typical wind and solar production but during peak times ERCOT relies on “about a third of that.”

Woodfin said during peak times more emphasis is placed on thermal energy because it is considered more reliable and less variable than wind and solar. He also said some freezing of wind turbines was expected during this storm.

“A lot of the generation that’s gone offline today, either tripped or had to come offline, has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system,” Woodfin said.

Cohan also said wind turbines are not the primary source of recent blackouts.

“It’s been disappointing how politicians have been politicizing this,“ said Cohan. “Somehow wind turbines are the favorite thing for some politicians to blame. They are really probably eighth or ninth down the list of the reasons why we’re having the blackouts.”

Based on comments and data shared by ERCOT, as well as Cohan’s analysis, KPRC 2′s Trust Index rates Abbott’s comment to Hannity as “Not true.”.

Not True

After review, we've found this information is Not True.

What is the Trust Index?

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”