Texas Legislature kicks off hearings over grid failure

by | Feb 25, 2021 | Policy, Texas Legislature

Lawmakers in the Texas Legislature held joint hearings in the state Senate and House on Thursday to get to the bottom of what happened during last week’s snowstorm and subsequent blackout. 

Among the first to testify to members of the House were NRG Energy CEO Mauricio Gutierrez and Vistra Corp CEO Curtis Morgan, the heads of two major power companies that experienced problems with energy generation because of the freezing temperatures. 

Gutierrez claimed that the Houston-based NRG had winterized its power system, but the severity of the snowstorm still caused problems. 

“When we talk about winterization, we talk about historical patterns how much we should do depending on weather conditions,” Gutierrez said. “It was unprecedented. “

“They were insulated,” Gutierrez said of company infrastructure. “There were things that should not have been impacted by cold weather.”

Moving forward, he said the legislature had the opportunity to define resilience and reliability for power companies in the face of climate change. 

Morgan of Irving-based Vistra Corp said his company experienced disruptions during the snowstorm too. He said that days before the outage, Vistra had warned ERCOT and the governor’s office about internal forecasts showing there would be issues with generation.

“I don’t think there was a broader communication to the public that we were running into a bigger situation,” Morgan said. 

 “I’m talking about every single person that you can think of,” Morgan said when asked who he believed the state should have warned. “Think about a hurricane, think of what we do as a state — look, you guys do this, not us, there was not this broad communication, that we thought might happen.”

Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) said power companies failed to communicate the severity of the crisis too. 

“The communication failures during the winter storm prevented Texans from being able to seek safety,” he said. “Texans needed to know what was going on so that they could plan and manage their expectations, yet, this communication never happened until it was too late.”

Throughout the hearing, blame for the fiasco shifted between the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the Public Utility Commission of Texas (the state agency that oversees ERCOT), and power companies and utilities. 

“You can’t talk about ERCOT without talking about the PUC. They are intertwined,” noted Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas). Anchía spoke to the Signal last week about the governor-appointed agency and its role in preventing the grid failure. 

There were also some frank admissions by many lawmakers that the legislature failed too.

For the most part, both parties as well as those testifying bounced around information about what happened and discussions about how to prevent another collapse of the energy grid — including doing away with or reforming Texas’ deregulated electricity market.

“I was a big proponent of this market and my faith is shaken,” Morgan said. “It didn’t work in this situation and in a big way and we need to revisit it.”

In the Texas Senate, the CEO of ERCOT Bill Magness testified to lawmakers. 

When asked if he would have done anything differently, Magness said no. According to ERCOT, the entire power grid was moments away from a major collapse that could have left Texas powerless for months. 

“It worked from keeping us going into a blackout that we’d still be in today, that’s why we did it,” Magness said. “Now it didn’t work for people’s lives, but it worked to preserve the integrity of the system.”

The hearings come days after several ERCOT board members resigned. Gov. Greg Abbott has pinned much of the disaster on the state-run corporation that oversees the grid. 

At least 40 Texans have died as a result of the storm, according to the Associated Press. 

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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