WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE INVESTIGATES WINTER STORM BLACKOUTS
(AUSTIN) — A week after a brutally cold winter storm left millions in the state without power and water for days, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee began the process of figuring out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. By early morning on February 15th, nearly half of Texas' generation capacity had been knocked out by the storm, and it wouldn't return to previous levels until the 20th, according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the company that manages Texas' independent, deregulated, electric grid. An estimated 4.5 million Texans were without power, some for days, without heat and light during one of the worst winter events to ever hit the state. "We were devastated - and I know I speak on your behalf as a committee - at the events that occurred, at the loss of life," said committee chair and North Richland Hills Senator Kelly Hancock as he began Thursday's hearing.
The committee heard from industry and state regulators, producers, and other key stakeholders in the market over two days of hearings. Though most agreed it's too soon to say exactly what went wrong, a few consensus issues emerged. One of the top complaints from lawmakers was a lack of communication from the industry and state agencies regarding the severity of the storm and the length and scope of the blackouts. "How could you not know the foreseeable danger and express that danger to those that could amplify those warnings," Conroe Senator Brandon Creighton demanded of ERCOT CEO Bill Magness. Magness said his agency forecast a severe situation that would likely require rolling outages, but they did not anticipate the loss of so much generation capacity.
Another issue raised repeatedly was the vulnerability of the state grid to extreme low temperatures. In 2011, Texas suffered an ice storm that once again put the grid on the brink of collapse and necessitated rolling blackouts. The Legislature took a look at that issue then, but Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols said the proposed fixes to the grid were never made mandatory. "It seemed like what actually happened is everybody promised to do a better job of weatherizing and we required the PUC [Public Utility Commission] to get reports on everybody on their weatherization plan, and I had a little difficulty this morning figuring out what anyone does with it," he said.
Water problems were even more widespread than power outages. Sixteen million Texans ended up under boil notices due to power outages and frozen or burst pipes, said Toby Baker, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Executive Director. At the peak of outages during the winter storm, 1,857 public water systems, including those serving most big cities in Texas, issued boil water orders. He recognized the dilemma faced by those warned to boil water before use while having no electricity to do so. "That was one of the challenges in the middle of this, as an agency we didn't have a solution for," he said. As of Thursday night, Baker said that more than 600 systems are still under boil orders, but that his agency is reaching out to offer technical assistance or help them find the testing resources necessary to ensure the water is again safe to drink.
In an address to the state given Wednesday night, Governor Greg Abbott said ERCOT failed to give the state adequate warning of the severity and duration of power outages during the storm, and that the storm exposed vulnerabilities in the entire state energy portfolio. "I am already working with the Legislature on reforms to add more power to the grid and to ensure that we never run out of power again," said Abbott. He has named legislation relating to the storm, including specific bills aimed at winterization of power generators and ERCOT reform, as emergency issues for the session. The governor pledged to keep lawmakers in Austin until these problems are solved. "This legislative session will not end until we fix these problems," said Abbott.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 2 at 3 p.m.