In February 2021, a severe cold weather event, known as Winter Storm Uri, caused numerous power outages, derates, or failures to start at electric generating plants scattered across Texas and the south-central U.S. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the power supply for about 90% of the load in Texas, ordered a total of 20,000 MW of rolling blackouts in an effort to prevent grid collapse. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), this was “the largest manually controlled load shedding event in U.S. history.” More than 4.5 million people in Texas lost power—some for as long as four days. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information reported that the event resulted in 226 deaths nationwide and cost an estimated $24 billion.
There has been a lot of finger pointing surrounding the blackouts that occurred. Several studies have been done into the causes, including one spearheaded by FERC, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), and NERC’s regional entities. The key finding from the FERC/NERC report was that a critical need exists “for stronger mandatory electric reliability standards, particularly with respect to generator cold weather-critical components and systems.” The study found that a combination of freezing issues (44.2%) and fuel issues (31.4%) caused 75.6% of the unplanned generating unit outages, derates, and failures to start.
But Bernard McNamee, a former FERC commissioner, and current partner with the law firm McGuireWoods and a senior advisor at McGuireWoods Consulting, suggested the study missed the real cause of the problem. Speaking as a guest on The POWER Podcast, McNamee said, “I think the reality is, is that there was a market design problem in Texas, and that was that, as you had more subsidized resources driving down the overall cost of power, you’re not providing enough financial incentive for other dispatchable resources to harden their systems—winterize their systems—to be available when the wind wasn’t blowing or the sun wasn’t shining.”
McNamee didn’t blame power generators for being ill-prepared. He suggested they simply made decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. “Why would you [spend money on weatherization] if you’re a natural gas company or generator and you think you’re going to make most of your money, you know, five to 10 days in the summer? You’re not expecting to operate in the winter and make money, [so] why would you spend the capital that you’re not going to be able to recover?” McNamee asked.
“I think that the market design is something that has not been talked about enough [and] was one of the leading causes of what happened,” McNamee said. “I think what happened in the winter storm in Texas, and what happened in August of 2020 in California, were really warning signs for the rest of the country about how we really need to pay attention to market design, and maybe costs that aren’t being priced into the market but that are necessary for reliability.”
However, McNamee also doesn’t blame the growth of renewable resources for the problem. “It doesn’t mean that wind and solar are bad. They provide some great benefits,” he said. “It’s not that one resource is good or bad. It’s thinking about how does the system all work together, so it’s there when you need it 24/7. And it can’t be, ‘Well, on average, the power will be available.’ It’s got to be available every moment.”
To hear the full interview, which includes additional discussion about FERC, bulk power system reliability, energy markets, independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission organizations (RTOs), the vertically integrated regulated utility model, the role of natural gas in the energy transition, and more, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:
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—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).