Power failure: Texas Senators take ‘first step toward reform’

HOUSTON – After two days and two hearings, Texas state senators and representatives will begin deciding how to reform the embattled Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, which manages the flow of electricity across our state.

“This is just the beginning, I think you’re going to see major reforms,” said state senator John Whitmire, (D) District 15. “I’m not impressed by the people that we have a right to depend on and that would mean our state agencies.”

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, (R) District 7, has been particularly critical of ERCOT’s preparedness; claiming the non-profit organization wasn’t prepared for the severity of the storm and didn’t properly communicate to state leaders the potential crisis the grid was facing.

“It’s clear ERCOT’s a mess,” Bettencourt said.

EROCT’s CEO testified operators are continually trained on worst-case scenarios, but Bettencourt said that training was never done in tandem with providers like CenterPoint or Oncor.

“They never trained with the people that put it in the wires and get it to peoples’ homes and businesses and that’s bad public policy,” said Bettencourt.

Senators also followed up on testimony that some natural gas facilities were down during the storm because the power had been cut to the plants as ERCOT scrambled to prevent a statewide blackout.

“Time and time again, the number problem we heard from our operators was the lack of power at their production sites,” said Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick as he testified Thursday evening before the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. “Any issues of frozen equipment or process delays could have been avoided had the production facilities not been shut down by power outages.”

Craddick’s testimony contradicted ERCOT CEO Bill Magness’ testimony the information he’s received shows the majority of plants went down because of freezing weather. Magness testified ERCOT is asking each of the 185 power plants that went down during the storm to provide specific reasons for the outages.

Magness told senators early reports show 42% reported cold weather freezing, six percent reported fuel limitations, eight percent reported equipment damage not related to weather, 18% reported potentially weather-related problems and 20% had no answer.

Senators then questioned corporate leaders like Oncor Electric Delivery CEO, Allen Nye. He testified companies like his do get a priority list of critical infrastructures, residents with critical needs and facilities that provide critical needs like hospitals and nursing homes. Nye said this list helps Oncor know where power should not be cut during an outage.

Nye testified his list did include natural gas facilities, but he learned during the storm his list was not the most current.

“Clearly there were facilities that were important to gas generation that had not been added to my list,” Nye said. “Those people have to tell me what’s critical so I can keep it on and they have to tell me if you keep this compressor on it will give gas into this pipeline and it will get to this power plant, but I don’t know where pipelines are going, I don’t know where generation is getting their gas and I don’t know where gas is going, they have to tell me that.”

CenterPoint executive vice president Kenneth Mercado testified they were caught off guard because ERCOT severely underestimated the number of outages that would be needed to keep the grid in balance. Mercado said CenterPoint was initially told 1875 megawatts would have to be taken offline, but as the storm intensified the company was eventually forced to cut 5000. ERCOT officials report one megawatt can power 200 homes during peak demand times.

“Historically, we have not seen anywhere near that magnitude in the 35, 40 years of time in operating this business,” Mercado said.

Senators also heard testimony from some electric providers that winterization efforts can and did work. Garland Power and Light COO Tom Hancock told state senators the company invested in a robust winterization effort following the 2011 winter storm that caused similar problems in Texas. Hancock said as a result none of the natural gas facilities in their territory went offline.

Governor Greg Abbott has asked the legislature to make winterization at power produces mandatory. Implementing these plans are only voluntary at this time in Texas. Whitmire said it’s likely the legislature will go this route.

“We tried to do cheap for the last ten years, since the 2011 storm, but we didn’t emphasize reliability,” Whitmire said.