Energy CEO Calls Out Lack of Urgency From Texas Officials Ahead of Winter Storm

Energy executives were among those questioned by Texas lawmakers on Thursday as officials try to sort out why so many people were left in the dark for days amid freezing temperatures.

Witnesses testify Thursday in Austin, Texas, as the Committees on State Affairs and Energy Resources hold a joint public hearing to consider the factors that led to statewide electrical blackouts. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(CN) — One of the nation’s top energy executives says his company told Texas officials days in advance that a historic winter storm would lead to electricity shortages, but that the warning was met with a “lack of urgency.”

“The level of urgency was not there, in my opinion,” Curt Morgan, president and CEO of Vistra Energy, told state lawmakers on Thursday. “We did not give people a fighting chance.”

Morgan’s comments came during one of two hearings at the state capitol over last week’s storm and ensuing blackouts that left at least 30 people dead and millions without power and heat for days.

When freezing temperatures first swept into the state, electric grid operators called for widespread controlled blackouts that were supposed to last for less than an hour, but instead stretched into days for many. The storm brought the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse, and more the 1 million Texans are still facing water shortages from burst pipes and other damage.

On Thursday, Morgan said his company’s internal forecasting ahead of the storm showed that Texas would likely not have enough electricity to go around. Vistra began sounding the alarm to grid managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, on Feb. 10 or 11, he said.

“We had that conversation, they said thank you,” Morgan said. “They did go back and look at things, but again, what I didn’t see was sort of a broad-based plan to communicate to the broader public.”

An ERCOT spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Morgan’s remarks.

Officials with the nonprofit that oversees the grid for most of the state have defended their handling of the crisis, insisting that if they had not launched the controlled blackouts to ease the strain on the grid, the state’s entire electric system would have collapsed in minutes.

At an ERCOT board meeting Wednesday, the group’s CEO Bill Magness acknowledged that the blackouts lasting longer than intended was a problem, but he said the power line companies that carried out the outages didn’t realize they wouldn’t be able to rotate the outages until they were already underway.

“As we understood that, we had to change that messaging,” Magness said. “I know it confused people and frustrated people, and I acknowledge that.”

Republican Governor Greg Abbott has repeatedly slammed ERCOT for its handling of the blackouts and called for an investigation into the grid operator.

“Before the storm hit, ERCOT repeatedly assured the state and the public that ERCOT was prepared,” Abbott said during a televised address Wednesday night. “Those assurances turned out to be false.”

Grid managers are far from the only ones facing pressure in the wake of the storm, with a blame game across the Texas power sector in full swing.

At Thursday’s hearing, one power company executive was asked specifically to point out who was at fault during the blackouts.

“Power generators, ERCOT, [the state’s public utility commission], fuel supply, transmission and distribution owners,” said Mauricio Gutierrez, president and CEO of NRG Energy. “And I believe all of them are going to be having a conversation with you today.”

Companies like Mauricio’s and Morgan’s are facing scrutiny over whether their power plants were properly equipped to withstand such harsh weather.

Experts have called for mandates that would force power companies to harden their systems against increasingly powerful storms, but those companies have a history of fighting such requirements in Texas and winning.

Mauricio pointed to the state’s response to a similar, though far less disastrous, winter storm a decade ago that also knocked out power to many.

“In 2011, they were recommendations and best practices,” he said. “There is not a standard, in terms of what the weatherization program should withstand, and I think there is an opportunity to have that conversation.”

Along with pointing the finger at ERCOT, Morgan told lawmakers they should look at the state’s natural gas sector, which saw the largest share of outages compared to other energy sources like wind and solar during the storm as pipelines and processing plants froze over.

“This was certainly to some extent performance of generators, but the big story here, again in my opinion, was the failure of the gas system to perform,” he said.

Though much of Thursday’s hearing centered on jargon-filled conversations about energy systems, lawmakers began the hearing by acknowledging the storm’s human toll, including the tragic death of an 11-year-old boy.

“He spent the last time of his life under a pile of blankets, struggling to stay warm,” Texas Representative Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said. “In a state that prides itself on being the biggest and best, we couldn’t even keep a young boy warm. Everyone is asking why.”

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