48 hours without power a 'nightmare' as residents demand answers

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Power grid 'set up to fail' during winter storm, expert says
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How did Texas get to the point of prolonged outages during this historic winter storm? In the video, 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg looked back to the system that the state was built on.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It's been more than 48 hours since Ann Webster, her elderly parents and four small dogs have had electricity in their Waller home.

With every passing hour, Webster says there's been more tears and frustration over unanswered questions about why her power has not been restored and when she'll get respite from the cold.

"It's been an absolute nightmare," Webster said. "We've sat in our cars to get warm. We've had the dogs in the cars. We've all huddled up in the same bed like Willy Wonka. We have done everything."

In Texas, the state doesn't own the power plants. The electrical grid is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, who then allows local distribution companies to offer power to its customers.

In 1989, "weather related equipment malfunctions were causing generator units to trip off line," the Austin-American Statesman reported.

It happened again in 2011, when ERCOT had to cut power to at least a million Texas homes during a record-breaking cold snap that year. In the aftermath of that February 2011 storm, a report by federal agencies found "ERCOT and the generators within ERCOT could better coordinate generator scheduled outages."

Now, more than 3 million residents are still without power despite warnings this could happen and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is calling on ERCOT's leadership to resign.

"It's clear what is going on right now is completely unacceptable because the way ERCOT is responding," Abbott told ABC13 on Tuesday.

Abbott issued an executive order for lawmakers to "investigate ERCOT and ensure Texans never again experience power outages on the scale they have seen over the past several days."

Still, there were signs this could happen. For decades, report after report urged Texas to force power plants to winterize and attract more reserve power plants for just this scenario. Experts say this won't be the last mass power outage for the state unless there's extensive and expensive fixes that fall on consumers.

"The consumer is going to have to bear the cost," Ed Hirs, a professor and energy fellow at the University of Houston, told 13 Investigates. "ERCOT doesn't build generation facilities. ERCOT doesn't build transmission facilities. The Public Utility Commission doesn't."

Hirs said it's local municipalities and electrical companies, like NRG, Oncor Energy and CenterPoint Energy, that build the facilities to connect to services from the state's energy grid.

"They won't build anything unless we give them an opportunity to make some money on that capital that they deploy and so the consumer is going to have to bear the burden of that," Hirs said. "We've gone too long with attrition and decay as our strategic direction for the Texas grid. This is exactly like an old Soviet Bureau. This is one buyer that was ERCOT. They focused on the cheap energy and they focused on cheap energy to the exclusion of reliability."

Hirs said the electrical grid was set up to fail.

"We set it up so that generators would not reinvest. We set it up so that there would be a neglect, there would be deferred maintenance," Hirs said. "The generators will come on for peak use in August or September. But, you know, the vast majority of the year, the average demand is about 45 gigawatts. Peak demand is about 70 in August and September for very hot days. And you know, suddenly we get a cold snap that calls for this additional 30 gigawatts of capacity, and it's not there to answer the bell."

Although the state has been prepared in the past for hot summer events, experts say the infrastructure was not prepared for withstanding cold temperatures.

Additionally, reports from ERCOT show the state's electrical grid was not prepared for the storm. In its seasonal assessment published on Nov. 5, 2020, ERCOT said it "anticipates there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve system-wide forecasted peak demand this winter season."

The report outlined four different scenarios of what peak demand could look like, but has more than doubled its "extreme peak load" prediction during the current storm.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit regulatory authority that oversees the nation's power grid reliability, has its own seasonable reports but also did not predict Texas would be faced with "a grid operator's worst nightmare."

"This scenario is beyond what we described as an extreme case, so Texas is really under an extraordinarily extreme set of conditions right now and nobody should lose that fact. This wasn't a routine cold snap. This is really something pretty unexpected from a planning perspective." NERC President and CEO Jim Robb said.

On Tuesday, NERC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced they are opening a joint inquiry "into the operations of the bulk-power system during the extreme winter weather conditions currently being experienced by the Midwest and South central states."

Robb said it is time for ERCOT to examine how its energy market is designed and its ability to attract a greater capacity for reserves than what the state currently has.

He said his organization has the authority to fine ERCOT, however, "I don't think there's anything I've seen that would tell me that there's likely to be a compliance issue here. I think this gets more into the state's fundamental supply (and) demand structure which is not regulated by our standards."

Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University, who studies energy systems, said there's no one entity to blame for the outages, rather it was a systemic failure to limit the vulnerability of the system to extreme cold temperatures.

"The blame goes around, from ERCOT, who ran their winter reliability scenarios with extreme load and extreme outage event scenarios that didn't encompass what we're seeing here, to pipeline operators that didn't prepare their pipelines to keep operating in cold temperatures, to power plant owners who didn't weatherize their power plants and even to people, homebuilders, and building code designers that didn't require more insulation in buildings because you don't need it most of the time," Jenkins said.

Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan on Tuesday called for the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees to hold joint hearings to review what led to this week's mass blackouts.

But, as residents wait for lawmakers to take action, millions are still without power.

Webster said she's burned through all of their firewood and the temperature inside her home dropped down to the 30s.

"I'm just laying here and I cry. I'm just beside myself because it bothers me that we've been out as long as we have and that some are getting back up and I don't understand the fairness there, but I also don't understand the fairness of any of it," Webster said. "I know that we are energy independent, I don't know why that is, I don't know whose decision that was."