I’m sure many of you spent some time wondering and researching the latest GOP policy failure to wreak havoc on Texans yesterday as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, badly blundered what were supposed to be rolling or rotating blackouts designed to alleviate the strain on our state’s electricity grid in an effort to keep essential facilities like hospitals and police, fire and EMS stations up and running.
We’re all living through this fiasco in real-time, but I wanted to walk through what we know so far and what questions remain unanswered as millions of Texans remain in the dark both figuratively and literally.
First and foremost, I want to be very transparent with our readers that we are not working with the best information from ERCOT here, and frankly, we aren’t working with much at all. I tuned into several press conferences or calls with local leaders and ERCOT executives throughout the day yesterday and digested an epic number of tweets from elected officials across the state, many of whom are without power themselves.
This is a full-blown fiasco, and as Texans demand warmth and answers, it sadly may be a while before they get either. What we do know is that this isn’t an isolated incident: the power outages plaguing this state are the result of decades of underinvestment, deregulation, and criminal neglect.
What Caused the Prolonged Blackouts?
There is no way to beat around the bush here; ERCOT and state leaders like Greg Abbott were caught red-handed in one of the biggest planning and policy failures in Texas history. With meteorologists predicting this weather system for more than a week, little seems to have been done to winterize vita equipment by ERCOT or to develop a proactive plan to inform local elected officials about the potential severity of the impact of the storm on our grid.
When we began exhausting the state’s electricity capacity on Sunday night, ERCOT mandated those “rolling blackouts” we were told to expect, but a formal notification didn’t hit Texans until 2:11 AM. For some, that was a full 30 minutes after they had been without power.
The way our system in Texas works is this: ERCOT manages the grid and works with transmission companies and services like Oncor or Austin Energy to transmit that energy into your home as electricity.
When demand peaks and we lack the supply to meet it, ERCOT orders those local transmission companies to offset their load on the grid at generally the same rate of their market share, so if an energy provider in Houston controls 25% of the statewide marketplace, they need to reduce their load by that amount.
The neighborhoods that they switch off are supposed to be chosen at random by a computer and exclude areas that share a circuit with an essential service, like a hospital, police station, or public utility such as the Texas Gas Service.
What ended up happening was, of course, not what they had planned. When ERCOT ordered transmission companies to close circuits, they began complying with the understanding that they would rotate the blackouts every 15-45 minutes to limit impacts on individual neighborhoods and communities.
As those companies began making houses go dark across Texas, ERCOT ran into a second fairly predictable problem: power plants vital to regenerating power were being knocked offline by the extreme cold Sunday night, meaning any reserves ERCOT built were coming directly at the expense of those without power.
The reasons these power plants went offline vary. Some were natural gas plants that simply couldn’t get the gas they needed to create more power, while others were faced with frozen lines and facilities, making it impossible to do their work.
For folks who lived through the three-day ice storm that hit Texas in 2011, this may sound familiar and with good reason. After that storm, ERCOT was ordered to winterize facilities vital to power generation to prevent future mishaps. It is unclear if any steps were taken to that end in the intervening decade.
This failure was thermal, not renewable energy.
Much was made earlier in the day Monday by Republican elected officials about the failure of frozen wind turbines to generate needed energy, with State Senator Dawn Buckingham going so far as to boast that renewable energy could never possibly replace fossil fuels.
Not so fast, say the data. ERCOT only planned for small portions of the state’s electricity in a winter weather event to be generated by renewable energy, placing the bulk of the load on thermal sources of energy such as natural gas, coal, and nuclear power. While it is true that some wind turbines froze and it impacted total energy regeneration. But on the whole, renewables actually overperformed at times yesterday as more than 40% of the state’s thermal energy capacity was offline.
What did Greg Abbott know, and when?
Throughout this unfolding crisis, Abbott has been oddly absent. He spent most of his day yesterday tweeting out the limited information on offer from ERCOT and seems perpetually unwilling to shoulder blame for his policy and leadership failures.
Unfortunately for Governor Abbott, the buck may well stop at his desk. As the Governor of Texas, he is principally responsible for emergency management and response, and the response through the first two days of this unprecedented winter weather event has certainly been lacking.
How is it possible that Abbott and other state leaders made such little oversight effort over ERCOT that they were unaware that wind turbines and the power plants we rely on hadn’t been properly winterized? Did their ideological devotion to deregulation leave Texas Republicans asleep at the wheel? That very much seems to be the case thus far.
But there are other more pressing questions Abbott needs to be held to account for. With this storm forecasted well in advance, why wasn’t he more proactive in communicating protocols for mitigating the disaster to the County Judges and Mayors fighting desperately to get people heat?
In a state with a political process so dominated by energy producers, how could so few of these titans of industry known that their plants couldn’t pass muster in a deep freeze?
I will admit my next question is the most cynical of the group, but it’s been gnawing at me overnight. I may be going a little too true crime here, but this entire fiasco begs questions that need to be asked. So here we go:
When did Abbott know that the cost of energy production was multiplying exponentially, and did he attempt to put any safeguards in place to protect consumers as the cost of generating a megawatt of electricity shot from $15 to $9,000?
Did Abbott have any conversations with energy producers who stood to profit from such a surge in pricing last week or this weekend?
Did Abbott at any time make an effort to pressure ERCOT into more conservative energy management strategies that could have kept more Texans online?
The ultimate irony here is that, while energy costs soared, many of those power plant owners are now losing millions of dollars as their plants remain offline.
Abbott is undoubtedly sweating profusely despite the freezing temperatures right now. Blackouts have ended the political careers of powerful governors in the past, and the longer Texans stay without power, the more real the political peril becomes for Abbott, who will be forced to explain how he’s been on the job for six years and somehow found himself completely unprepared for this disaster.
How bad will this get?
We really can’t tell you. Temperatures throughout most of today should be 10-15 degrees higher than the extreme cold we experienced yesterday, but with temperatures again dropping overnight, demand will spike as heating systems struggle to keep up with the cold.
ERCOT still can’t advise concrete restoration timelines and hasn’t provided much information in general about when the grid will be operating as it usually should. With temperatures continuing to increase tomorrow (potentially getting just above freezing temperatures in parts of the state), which should help the situation.
ERCOT is predicting a spike in energy generation later today, but they also projected a similar spike last night that did not occur.
What we all need to be worried about beyond the immediate need to keep people as warm as possible in these emergency conditions are the further impacts of exposure to cold weather. EMS crews reported taking a much higher volume of calls yesterday than on an average day, and car accidents, exposure to the elements, and pneumonia all become very real concerns.
So, too, does Covid-19. With many Texans forced to go to friends and family members’ housesand the winter conditions that Covid thrives in hitting Texas for the first time, our already tenuous situation becomes even more unpredictable.
That’s to say, nothing of the most vulnerable seniors of folks with medical conditions that require electric equipment like CPAP or breathing machines. Some of these Texans have been without power for close to two full days at this point.
Why does Texas have their own grid anyway?
Because, well, Texas. When we nationalized the power grid most of the rest of the country relies on, Texas opted not to join to avoid federal regulations. This relic of World War II-era thinking helped lay the foundation for decades of deregulation for the energy industry, a trend that has only deepened over time as the Texas GOP has grown increasingly conservative.
Not even all of Texas is on its own grid. El Paso and portions of East Texas rely on one of the two grids that serve the rest of the lower 48, one covering the Eastern Hemisphere and one covering the Western.
El Paso is on the Western Hemisphere grid, and the eastern counties not on ERCOT are on the Eastern Hemisphere. If the rest of Texas were part of the national system, states with surpluses would be able to divert energy to Texas, helping us keep more people’s lights and heat on.
What needs to happen long-term?
Significant investment in improving our grid infrastructure is sorely needed, as well as more transparency and better oversight of ERCOT and their collective of energy producers, as much of which should come at their expense as possible. If they can’t foot the bill, we should tap the rainy day fund to winterize and modernize our grid and return the money to Texas taxpayers in the form of energy rebates.
And, on a more fundamental level, we need a better state government. Greg Abbott’s failures through the pandemic and his asleep-at-the-wheel approach to this disaster don’t just exhibit fundamental incompetence as an administrator but also a callously depraved indifference to the consequences of his actions. In a court of law, you go to jail for that. In 2022, Greg Abbott should at least lose an election for it.
Stay warm, but stay angry, Texas. You deserve better.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.