Texas Grid Operator to Be Investigated by Congressional Subcommittee

Texas' costliest natural disaster will be the subject of a congressional investigation by a House Oversight subcommittee thanks to Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who is concerned about ERCOT's lack of preparation for extreme winter weather.

March 7, 2021, 11:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

Polar Vortex

Ruchithakur16 / Shutterstock

Winter storm 2021, as The Texas Tribune has dubbed it, "which killed dozens around the state, is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Texas' history, even costlier than Hurricane Harvey, which inflicted $125 billion in damage," writeBryan Mena, the D.C. reporting fellow for The Texas Tribune, on March 3. "It is still too early to tally the total cost of the destruction."

Contrary to what has been written by some in the mainstream media and by some in the energy industry on the extreme weather event that caused an epic grid failure in Texas during the third week of February, the Arctic freeze was not unprecedented but foreseeable and the power failure was preventable, as noted by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the environment subcommittee for the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, in his March 3 letter to Bill Magness, president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT):

Extreme winter weather events in Texas have occurred repeatedly over decades, and ERCOT has been unprepared for them. ERCOT’s own consultant has predicted that such extreme winter weather events will continue to occur every decade. 

The Subcommittee is concerned that the loss of electric reliability, and the resulting human suffering, deaths, and economic costs, will happen again unless ERCOT and the State of Texas confront the predicted increase in extreme weather events with adequate preparation and appropriate infrastructure.

"Khanna is requesting from ERCOT all documents related to preparations, a description of every power generator that experienced failures and old documents that address the outages the state experienced in 1989 and 2011," adds Mena. "The subcommittee asked ERCOT to hand over documents by March 17."

Will the subcommittee go beyond 'blaming ERCOT?'

As posted here recently, ERCOT, the nonprofit, independent power grid operator for 90 percent of the nation's second-largest state, has become the convenient fall guy for the epic power failure:

Rather than blaming the grid operator for what Austin American-Statesman reporter, Asher Price, called "the most calamitous week in modern Texas history," the roots of the power failure rest with the power plant owners and operators who opted not to winterize their equipment for a very simple reason – they weren't required to.

"Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT, told The Texas Tribune a few weeks ago that winterizing the grid is 'not mandatory' and is instead part of 'a voluntary guideline,'" adds Mena.

The subcommittee's investigation will also consider one of the 'four converging crises' identified by President Joe Biden on Inauguration Day and on page 4 of Khanna's 7-page letter [pdf].

Increased Extreme Weather Events are Connected to Climate Change

The consensus view among climate scientists is that the Earth is warming due to human-caused activities and that extreme weather events are the predictable result. The extreme winter weather experienced by Texas is a known risk of global warming. [See footnote #18 at bottom of page.]

On a related issue, the letter addresses the misinformation given by Texas officials and some in the media on the role that green energy played in the power failure.

Despite false claims from Texas officials that the power outages were attributable to renewable sources like wind turbines, the vast majority of the dip in electricity supply came from fossil fuel generation. Renewable sources of energy only make up roughly 10% of power in Texas, while over half of the energy comes from fossil fuels such as power plants fired by natural gas. [See footnotes 3-4 on bottom of pg. 2]

ERCOT CEO ousted

While a spokesperson for ERCOT told The Texas Tribune that the grid operator "will be providing responses" to the subcommittee, it may not come from CEO Magness. The Tribune reported separately on March 3 that the board that oversees ERCOT had voted to terminate him.

Magness' absence will leave the 16-person ERCOT board with a mix of vacancies and temporary members. Both ERCOT and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of Texas, the regulatory body that oversees it, have been lambasted in recent weeks for failures in preparing for and responding to the winter storm that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

Hopefully, Khanna's subcommittee will resist the 'blame ERCOT' perspective that seems to have pervaded the state's leadership. As the Tribune noted, "Magness defended ERCOT as an entity that carries out what state lawmakers and the PUC direct."

“The commission approves the policy, we implement it,” Magness said. 

Related in Planetizen

Hat tip to Chris Cillizza.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in The Texas Tribune

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