Texas Launches Probe of Power Companies After Blackouts

The fallout from the severe weather that crippled the power grid in Texas and other states over the past week continues, as officials grapple with what went wrong and who should be held accountable for an energy emergency that left millions without electricity.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Feb. 19 said his office would investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s power grid operator, and issued Civil Investigative Demands (CIDs) to ERCOT and other power companies as part of that investigation. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also said ERCOT’s actions would be investigated, and said the state Senate would begin a probe into the system operator in the next week.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott already had called on state lawmakers to make reform of the state’s grid operator an “emergency item” in the current legislative session.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas in an emergency meeting late Friday launched its own investigation. The group also unanimously approved a series of steps it said were designed to protect retail electric customers who will face financial impacts from the power outages.

“The immediate impact of this terrible weather was the loss of power for millions of Texas households and the financial aftershocks could be devastating,” said DeAnn Walker, the commission chair. “We must act swiftly to discover not only how this crisis came together, but also take meaningful steps to protect electricity customers.”

“This week’s weather and associated grid crisis were a nightmare for millions of Texans,” said Thomas Gleeson, PUC Executive Director, in a statement shared with POWER. “While the financial implications may drive some retail electric providers from the marketplace, we will work to ensure their customers can easily transition to a new provider.”

Paxton in a statement Friday said he wanted to see any communications between ERCOT and other electricity producers, as his office seeks answers to questions about the groups’ emergency plans, power pricing, and handling of the sweeping power outages.

“I’m using the full scope of my constitutional powers to launch an investigation into ERCOT and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather. While Texans pulled together to get their communities through this disaster, they were largely left in the dark,” Paxton said. “We will get to the bottom of this power failure and I will tirelessly pursue justice for Texans.”

A CID is a request for records and documents from an executive or government agency, used to obtain information for use in an investigation. Paxton’s office issued CIDs to several groups, including ERCOT, along with AEP Texas, Calpine Corp., CenterPoint Energy Services, Griddy Energy, La Frontera Holdings, and Luminant Generation Co. Other entities receiving the notice included NRG Texas Power, Oncor Electric Delivery Co., Panda Sherman Power, Temple Generation I, and Texas-New Mexico Power Co.

Record Low Temperatures

Millions of people across Texas were without power for several days during a period of record-low temperatures. Dallas on Feb. 16 had a low temperature of -2, the second-lowest recorded temperature in that city’s history, and the lowest mark since a similar reading on Jan. 31, 1949. Officials said the only time it was colder was on Feb. 12, 1899, when the temperature bottomed at -8.

Two major winter storms this past week led to the deaths of as many as 50 people across the U.S., including at least 30 in Texas, according to government officials. The death toll is expected to go higher.

“It’s a slow process. We may have preliminary information in weeks, not days,” Chris Van Deusen, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson, told the Texas Tribune. Van Deusen said a statewide survey of deaths caused by the storm is underway. Authorities said many of the victims perished from hypothermia, unable to keep warm in their homes as temperatures hovered at or below zero, and no heat was available.

ERCOT officials on Thursday said the state’s power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a potential failure that could have left much of the state without power for months, saying a scenario existed that could have brought uncontrolled blackouts. That led to the decision in the early hours of Feb. 15 to begin what were intended to be rolling blackouts, as operators saw warning signs that large amounts of the power supply was dropping off the grid.

First Lawsuit Filed

The first of what could be many lawsuits related to the power outages was filed Friday by a Dallas law firm on behalf of businesses impacted by the blackouts. The lawsuit filed by the Fears Nachawati group charges that ERCOT and American Electric Power (AEP) “failed to maintain and winterize their infrastructure for the anticipated spike in energy use and failed to take corrective action once systems started to fail,” according to a statement shared with POWER. The statement said, “The resulting widespread property damage from blackouts was caused by their negligence and gross negligence. In addition, the disruptions rendered private property unusable and amounted to an illegal ‘taking’ of private property by the government.”

The lawsuit charges that ERCOT and AEP “consciously ignored repeated warnings about weaknesses in the state’s power infrastructure and bear responsibility for property damage and business interruptions from recent catastrophic winter weather power outages.”

5 Million Without Power

The winter storms that stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast left more than 5 million people without power for periods of time in the past week, from Houston to the upper Midwest. Texas was hit particularly hard; as many as 4 million electricity customers were without power there, some for several days.

Texas’ highly decentralized electricity model differs from much of the rest of the U.S., a situation that energy analysts said contributed to this week’s problems. Several experts told POWER the widespread outages came because the state’s power grid was not prepared for the surge in demand for electricity brought about by the storm’s below-freezing temperatures. They said that years of government decisions not to require equipment upgrades to withstand extreme low temperatures, and the state’s longtime policy of mostly operating independently from other U.S. grids, meant the system was unprepared for the winter storm.

Even Rick Perry, the state’s former governor and also former head of the U.S. Dept. of Energy under President Trump, said in a blog post: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”

ERCOT is a nonprofit consortium that operates the grid for about 85% of Texas, though it does not invest in power generation or infrastructure. Because it is contained within Texas, it is not subject to federal government oversight.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chair Richard Glick on Feb. 18 called on Congress and Texas lawmakers to “rethink” ERCOT’s “go it alone approach” to the state’s power grid. FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) have opened an inquiry into the Texas situation. Glick in a meeting said, “Does it really makes sense to isolate yourself and limit your ability to get power from neighboring regions, just to keep FERC at bay? That strikes me as the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Thermal Plants Impacted

The extreme cold impacted operations at thermal power plants, including coal- and natural gas-fired facilities, and wind turbines in the state stopped working. The turbines in Texas, unlike those in states to the north, are not equipped with winter packages that enable them to continue working in extreme cold.

The American Gas Association said that natural gas demand by the power sector in Texas increased 48.6% over a normal winter day; the group said residential and commercial sector gas demand increased by 28%. The association said Feb. 14 and 15 set a two-day record for natural gas deliveries.

Coal plants were dealing with frozen equipment. Energy analysts said many of the coal-fired plant issues were caused by the freezing of feed water needed to run the facilities’ steam turbines, making it impossible to run the plants.

Initial data from ERCOT showed that at the height of this week’s emergency, about 46 GW of power generation were forced offline. About 28 GW of that amount was thermal generation, mostly natural gas but also coal and nuclear power. The rest was wind and solar generation.

ICF, the energy consultancy group, in an analysis shared with POWER said that “Well and processing plant freeze-ups reduced natural gas production in Texas by more than 50%,” and said that while the state did limit the amount of gas being sent out of state, “that still did not leave sufficient gas to meet the surge in demand. The loss of exports from Texas to other nearby states was offset in part by very high regional storage withdrawals. Despite the loss in production, natural gas consumption in Texas, including both LDC [local distribution company] and power generation demand, reached historical winter highs early in the crisis.”

Dr. Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), in a statement this week noted his group recently published a technical report about the impacts of extreme weather events on the power grid. Mansoor said, “My heart goes out to the EPRI employees and millions of Texas residents and businesses struggling to keep their light, heat and water on during this massive winter storm, during a global pandemic. So much of our economy already rests on the electric sector, but as more of our economy becomes reliant on electricity, and our grid continues to integrate more low-carbon renewable resources, we must change the way we assess the reliability of our system.”

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).


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