EnergyIssues‘Who is to Blame?’ Legislative Hearings on Texas Blackouts Begin

Hearings investigating the Texas blackouts began Thursday.
and February 25, 2021
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The Texas legislature had its first crack at questioning energy industry members and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) on Thursday as two committee hearings were held concerning the blackouts of last week.

In the Senate, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness was grilled for much of the day by the upper chamber.

Magness reiterated much of what he’s been saying since last week, that in his mind ERCOT did all it could to prevent catastrophe. In an emergency meeting on Wednesday, ERCOT officials said they were about four and a half minutes away from a “black start” scenario creating a weeks-long power outage across the whole state.

“If we had not acted by calling for controlled outages, Texas would have had a [statewide] blackout,” he told the Senate.

Pressed by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who said “what you did didn’t work,” Magness responded, “Respectfully, sir, it worked from keeping us from going into a blackout.”

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ERCOT has received ample flak for its communication, or lack thereof, during last week’s events. Magness stated, “The communications that we were sending out—granted, they’re limited to the people who run the plants … those expressed a sense of urgency.”

“The people who were seeing and receiving these communications should have understood, and I believe they did, from what I heard, that we were moving into something very serious.”

Over on the House side on Wednesday morning, two stakeholders of the power generation sector testified before a joint committee of Energy Resources and State Affairs.

Curt Morgan, CEO of the North Texas generator Vistra Corp., and Mauricio Gutierrez, CEO of NRG Energy each told House members their in-house meteorologists predicted a severe weather event as early as February 9.

Back in the Senate, a witness attested the same.

Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority said that arctic air arrived in Texas on February 10 and continued arriving through Valentine’s Day.

Texas then saw extremely cold temperatures from February 14 through February 18. 

The average statewide temperature dropped to a low of 11.6 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday the 15. Precipitation accompanied that drop and another front moved in that Thursday and Friday.

Several major cities in Texas had their longest record of consecutive hours of temperatures below freezing, notably Midland at 220 hours, Waco at 205 hours, and Austin at 144 hours.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex had its seventh-longest record with 139 straight hours of freezing temperatures, and San Antonio had its second-longest at 96 hours.

Rose said that stratospheric warming events that cause disruptions in the polar vortex happen around every one to four years, but when they do happen, cold air is not always directed toward North America and Texas.

“There are so many things that had to align just right to make this happen,” said Rose. He noted that while it is a possibility that similar weather disruptions could happen in the future, “these events don’t tend to line up all that often.”

Upon learning of the incoming storm, Gutierrez and Morgan each said they prepared as best they could which included filling onsite tankers of mineralized water in case water supplies necessary to the generation froze.

Morgan also stated his team contacted ERCOT about the severity of the storm but was displeased with the organization’s response.

When asked who is to blame for what happened by Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), each CEO listed nearly every institution or group of businesses from wellhead to outlet as those on which to lay blame.

Hunter highlighted one in particular.

“I think the utility companies have done an awful, awful job of communicating during this,” he forcefully stated. Neither residents nor legislators were properly notified, Hunter stated, of the events as they unfolded.

Rep. Eddie Lucio, III (D-Brownsville) took this criticism and expanded it to all parties in the energy industry.

And Rep. Sam Harless (R-Spring) turned the spotlight on the two regulatory bodies in charge of the grid, “The communication was weak. The PUC was nonexistent. ERCOT was pathetic.”

About ERCOT’s response and whether it came soon enough, Gutierrez stated, “I don’t have all the info they did, but I can tell you that based on the frequency changes, there was some lag.”

ERCOT issued the order to shed grid load early in the morning on February 15 as the temperature dropped and Texans turned up their thermostats. But that was not the only wrench thrown into the system.

Electricity supply deteriorated for a number of different reasons including frozen and overwhelmed infrastructure. Both CEOs stated that their power plants had problems with a dearth of pressure within the pipelines required to push the fuel from wellhead to power plant.

“The gas system did not work in tandem with the electricity system,” Morgan stated.

This assertion regarding the pipeline pressure, however, is disputed by some who instead point to the electricity supply to the machines at natural gas wellheads being turned off.

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA), told The Texan, “Loss of power impacted natural gas transmission and was a significant reason natural gas production slowed during last week’s extreme winter weather.”

“While weather created many obstacles, many producers winterized and could have continued producing except for the power losses outside their control. Even with reduced production, natural gas remained the energy source for over 60 percent of the power generation during the course of the week-long, statewide storm.”

There was also a lot of discussion about rethinking not only the structure of the grid and its feeding infrastructure but also the market system itself.

Texas’ energy-only market pays generators only after they supply power rather than negotiating contracts up front for a certain amount of generation.

The state consistently ranks in the lower half of electricity prices.

Part of the driving force behind that discussion is the exorbitant wholesale electricity prices — partially due to an order so by the Public Utility Commission — that occurred as scarcity ran wild in the system last week. Some customers received massive utility bills because of that, but most will not.

Asked whether their customers will face such shocking bill totals, both Morgan and Gutierrez said no and that neither company provides plans indexed based on the wholesale price. In fact, across the state about one percent of utility customers fit that bill.

Gutierrez also said he doesn’t think those plans should be available for the regular consumer to opt into.

The respective hearings continued further on Thursday as more officials appeared before the body to answer why the lights went out when Texans needed them most.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.