Texas lawmakers to hold ERCOT under microscope for winter grid disaster

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As the Texas Legislature prepares to hold hearings Thursday into the failure of the state's power grid during last week's historic winter storms, many questions remain for both storm victims and lawmakers alike.

ABC13 hosted a town hall Tuesday night, gathering one of the state's foremost experts on the power grid and four legislators from Houston who will investigate why millions of Texans were left in the dark, with some still trying to recover without access to water.

At least 20 deaths have been attributed to the winter storms, which brought the coldest February temperatures in 122 years to our region. Analysts say four million homes lost power, heat or water at some point during the disaster.

Ed Hirs, Energy Fellow at University of Houston, has spent years sounding the alarm that a major blackout was on the horizon unless interventions were made at ERCOT, the state's nonprofit energy council.

"The fact of the matter is this model was put in place 20 years ago. It was clear that it was failing 10 years ago, clear that it's been failing ever since," Hirs said. "And no one in Austin has had the political integrity to address the problem until a complete disaster has occurred."

Lawmakers charged with getting to the bottom of the Texas power grid failure told Eyewitness News Tuesday night they are consumed with questions, everything from the makeup and activities of the ERCOT board to how to protect residents from those outrageous electric bills.

"The power is back on, but millions of Texans are still in the dark," State Rep. Shawn Thierry said. "They don't know how ERCOT works."

Many were also unaware of just who was making the decisions for the energy council until it was too late, State Sen. Carol Alvarado said.

"The governance issue is one that has really angered me the most," Alvarado said. "All these people live out of state, one lives in another country, in Germany."

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"I have no idea why we have board members from out of state," Hirs added.

Yet while some board members were paid salaries upwards of $200,000 a year to help manage electricity for 26 million Texas customers, legislators we spoke with said one thing is clear: ERCOT's failure ultimately cost residents wages, their homes and in some cases, their lives.

"The warning signs were there, right? So you had meteorologists that were predicting this cold and they were spot on," State Rep. Armando Walle said. "I think it's just a travesty and a dereliction of duty (by ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas)."

The four Democratic lawmakers who appeared on ABC13's town hall all said they would also address the budget-breaking electric bills that thousands of utility customers have received.

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State Rep. Christina Morales, who represents a majority Hispanic community, said the disproportionate effects of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the winter storms has left many in her district traumatized.

"The system was set up for profits and not people." Morales said.

Thierry said she understands the frustration and even desperation of Texans in the wake of everything that happened in the last week: she too is a storm victim.

"I'm not in my home right now. I've lost everything," Thierry said. "I don't have clothes, I don't have... my mother's house still doesn't have water, so this is unacceptable."

Last Thursday, Thierry posted video to Twitter showing a deluge of water pouring through a gaping hole in her kitchen ceiling. This Thursday, she's looking for answers.

"Whether you lived in the trailer park or, for lack of a better word, the Taj Mahal, everyone was in the dark," Thierry said. "Everyone was without water. People lost their lives. So I encourage everyone that's listening, all of your viewers, to hold those accountable who say that they will be held accountable."

ABC13 invited nine Republican lawmakers to participate in Tuesday night's town hall, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, two U.S. representatives, two Houston-area state senators, two state representatives and a county judge. While some declined, others who initially agreed to appear cancelled before the town hall.

All of our town hall panelists agreed to appear without condition.

Watch a recap of the event, live newscasts and in-depth reporting from ABC13 on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and AndroidTV. Just search "ABC13 Houston."

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