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Power Failure: Blame for Texas’ electrical grid disaster extends far further than ERCOT 

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ERCOT
  • Courtesy of ERCOT
It’s a safe bet Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, may not have that job much longer.

In the wake of last week’s devastating statewide power outages, a bipartisan chorus of state lawmakers led by Gov. Greg Abbott is calling for his firing or resignation as head of the nonprofit that oversees the state electrical grid. Many, including the Republican governor, are calling for the ouster of ERCOT’s entire board for good measure.

But slathering blame for last week’s catastrophic outages solely on ERCOT is both misdirected and coming a decade too late, say critics familiar with the state’s power generating systems.

They point out that last week’s blackouts were themselves a repeat of a 2011 incident in which freezing temperatures played havoc with the grid.

In the wake of that debacle, state leaders called for new regulations on power companies, but in the end passed no significant new rules. Any new investments and policy changes by power generators to weatherproof their plants since then have been voluntary.

“There were no real repercussions in 2011,” said Cyrus Reed, interim director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The same politicians that are calling for ERCOT’s head right now have been saying for years that we’ve got the best power system in the land.”

Lack of oversight

What’s more, ERCOT doesn’t possess the enforcement power to require generators to upgrade facilities, experts also point out. The Legislature would need to mandate such requirements, and it’s up to the Texas Public Utility Commission — an oversight body appointed by Abb0tt himself — to enforce regulations that apply to power companies.

“ERCOT is the implementing body for the PUC’s mandates and directives,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office for consumer group Public Citizen.

While Abbott did last week call on the Lege to pass a law requiring power generators to winterize their plants, Shelley likened the governor’s repeated attacks on the grid operator to “yelling at the referee during a football game.”

In a telling moment during a press conference last Thursday at which Abbott pledged Texans “will get answers” why the grid imploded, he declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether the PUC deserves the same scrutiny he’s demanding of ERCOT. 

Deregulatory fervor

Indeed, critics charge that the deregulatory fervor espoused by Abbott and other Texas GOP leaders played a key role in last week’s grid implosion. The state’s decision to maintain its own grid, separate from the rest of the nation, is itself part of its longtime effort to avoid federal oversight.

Likewise, the state’s Wild West energy market allowed natural gas companies to jack up rates for utilities during the height of the storm — up to 1,400% in the case of San Antonio’s CPS Energy. That will lead to higher consumer bills for years to come. CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams last week said the effects of the gas companies’ price hikes will need to be spread out over customer bills for the next “10 or 15 years.”

“If heads need to roll, it’s not at ERCOT, it’s at the PUC,” Reed of Sierra Club said. “Frankly, ERCOT did what they were asked to do.”

While the grid operator and unprepared utilities deserve part of the blame, State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said he hopes the incident spurs a wider examination of the state’s failed oversight of the energy-generating sector.

“I think it’s absolutely fair to say that this isn’t just ERCOT,” he said. “There’s been a series of decisions over the years that’s led us here, from who’s appointed to ERCOT to not requiring that providers make plant upgrades to this wild deregulation to staying independent from the two national grids.”

Bigger questions

Bernal worries Abbott and the GOP-controlled Legislature are too beholden to the powerful energy lobby to demand substantial change. After all, mandates to winterize plants and create redundant infrastructure will be expensive, and for-profit generators offer returns to shareholders by holding down costs.

But, in the face of climate change, Texas can no longer put off big questions about how it regulates power generation, said Andres Clarens, a civil engineering professor who helps lead the University of Virginia’s Environmental Resilience Institute.

Whether or not lawmakers believe last week’s unprecedented storm was the result of a changing climate, new federal carbon standards, the growth of electrical vehicles and other factors demand action now. His home state of Virginia, for example, last year approved a bill committing to decarbonize its power sector by 2050.

“We should be fixing the grid and course correcting for the future,” Clarens said. “The GOP can either lead on this stuff, or they can get left behind.”

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