Resigning ERCOT board members acknowledge “pain and suffering” from extreme power grid strain that caused outages for millions of Texans

Power lines in Dallas during last week’s winter storm. Millions went without power in Texas for days last week, and on Wednesday the grid operator’s board acknowledged Texans’ suffering. Credit: Ben Torres for The Texas Tribune

In its first meeting since a historic winter storm caused the near-collapse of Texas’ power grid, the director of the board for the entity that operates the grid acknowledged the “pain and suffering” that millions of Texans experienced during prolonged power outages — then resigned along with five other board members.

Leaders of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Wednesday briefed the board on why millions of Texans sustained dayslong power outages last week and apologized for not giving the board and the public earlier warning about the possibility of massive disruptions.

The crisis last week and resulting criticism of ERCOT ended with the six board resignations, effective at the end of the board meeting Wednesday. A seventh person, a board candidate, withdrew his application.

“I want to acknowledge the pain and suffering of Texans during this tragedy that continues for many,” said Sally Talberg, ERCOT’s board chair, who was among the members who resigned. “All of our hearts go out to all of you who have had to go without electricity, heat, water, medicine and food from frigid temperatures, and continue to face the tragic consequences.”

Bill Magness, president and CEO of ERCOT, told board members that nearly half of the power typically available to Texas’ grid went offline at the lowest point last week. The most significant source of power loss during the crisis came from natural gas power plants that couldn’t generate power — whether from fuel supply shortages or freezing components at the plants.

The grid that covers most of Texas lost an extraordinary amount of power, about 52,000 megawatts, Magness said. That’s enough to power more than 10 million Texas homes at peak demand. The loss stayed near those extreme levels for days due to power plants’ inability to restart as temperatures remained below freezing in large swaths of Texas, making what should have been short, rotating outages into a days-long crisis.

“In other events when we’ve had rotating outages, like in 2011, the ability of generation to come back didn’t take nearly as long,” he said.

The amount of demand on the grid could have climbed to more than 70,000 megawatts on Feb. 15 if outages had not been implemented, ERCOT estimates. But that day, supply fell rapidly to fewer than 50,000 megawatts. It’s imperative to keep the electrical grid balanced — otherwise, Texas could have risked uncontrolled blackouts that may have lasted weeks, if not months, officials said.

Because the amount of generation lost was so great, transmission companies — including CenterPoint Energy, which transmits power to much of the Houston region, and Oncor Electric Delivery, which transmits power to much of the Dallas and Austin regions — were unable to effectively rotate the controlled outages from customer to customer while maintaining service to critical infrastructure, such as hospitals.

That is one of the main problems during the crisis that ERCOT leaders said they will begin to address.

“The amounts [of power to shed from the system] required were so large that they could not move them,” Magness said. “That’s where so much of the harm came from — this is what we have to figure out.”

All forms of energy — natural gas, wind, coal and nuclear plants — experienced outages last week.

Natural gas generation was particularly challenged, data shows: Outages from natural gas plants spiked from around 11,000 megawatts to near 25,000 megawatts in the early hours of Feb. 15. The inability of gas-fired power plants to get enough fuel was also a much more severe problem last week than during the 2011 storm, according to ERCOT’s data.

“If you don’t have natural gas fuel, you can’t run a natural gas plant,” Magness said. “We saw a lot of fuel issues in the system.”

During the board meeting, members asked how the organization could have been better prepared and criticized ERCOT leaders for not effectively communicating to the public or the board further in advance just how extreme the crisis could become. Magness apologized to the board for not giving the public and the board “in depth” information about storm preparations or potential seriousness of the storm’s consequences ahead of the crisis.

However, board members also commended ERCOT grid operators for making the difficult decision to order the outages, which averted an uncontrolled system collapse.

Six ERCOT board members’ resignations became effective at the end of the meeting. The members informed the Public Utility Commission, the government entity that oversees ERCOT, on Tuesday that they would resign in response to public criticism that they do not reside in the state. ERCOT confirmed on Wednesday that Randal Miller, who represented independent retail power providers, also resigned his position on the board.

Disclosure: CenterPoint Energy and Oncor have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.