No Clear Timeline From Texas Grid Operators on Fixing Outages

Texas electric grid operators and transmission companies say it could still be days before power is fully restored after a brutal winter storm.

Because his house has been without power since Monday night, Donald Fuhrman sits in a warm but darkened restaurant on Tuesday in Richardson, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

(CN) — Representatives with Texas’ electric grid operator on Tuesday declined to offer a specific timeline on when power could be restored to the millions of people across the state who have been left in the dark for more than a day after a brutal winter storm.

“Certainly, over the next couple days, I think we see really good signs of progress,” Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told reporters during an afternoon briefing.

ERCOT, a nonprofit that oversees most of the state’s grid, has come under fire by frustrated Texans and lawmakers for its handling of a crisis that has proven worse than the rolling blackouts the state experienced a decade ago.

“The amount of time that people have had to be out of service for electricity during a time of extreme cold is terrible,” Magness said. “It is unacceptable.”

ERCOT says it has restored power to at least 500,000 households in Texas, but even as power plants rush to get back online, some other sources of power are falling off for the first time from the storm.

“It appears that a lot of the generation that’s gone offline today…has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system,” said Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s lead systems operations director.

Those issues include things like frozen wellheads and pipeline systems, he said.

On Monday, as a historic storm gripped the state and temperatures plummeted into the single digits in many areas, power sources ranging from wind turbines to natural gas plants froze and shut down just as Texans were cranking up their heaters.

That prompted grid managers to purposefully launch what were supposed to be “rolling” blackouts aimed at balancing the grid’s supply and demand, as too much of imbalance could essentially overwhelm the grid and lead to much longer blackouts.

Still, many across the state have remained without power from purposeful outages that were supposed to last less than an hour.

In response, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called for an investigation and declared reforming ERCOT an “emergency item” for lawmakers this session.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” the governor said in a statement. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather.”

“I have constituents that have gone without power for over 30 hours,” said Eddie Morales, a Democratic state lawmaker whose district stretches across a huge swath of the rural West Texas borderlands region. “This is totally unacceptable and we will need to address this in the near future in the Capitol.”

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said Tuesday he had asked the chamber’s State Affairs and Energy Resources Committees to hold a joint hearing Feb. 25 to “review the factors that led to megawatts of energy being dropped off the ERCOT system” when families needed it most and discuss how to prevent it from happening again.

Still, grid managers have defended their handling of the crisis, stressing that the move to require power line companies to shut off power to a portion of the population was meant to avoid a much more widespread and catastrophic blackout that could have lasted months.

“What we’re protecting against is worse,” Magness said.

The power line companies, which carried out ERCOT’s directive and decided where exactly the controlled outages would occur, have also not been able to say when exactly power would be fully restored.

About 40,000 megawatts of electricity generation remains offline across the state because of problems from the storm, Woodfin said Tuesday.

While some have blamed the crisis on freezing wind turbines, a larger share of the problem has stemmed from fossil fuel sources that also went down.

Woodfin said about 16,000 megawatts of wind and solar power remained shuttered Tuesday, while around 30,000 megawatts of power from natural gas, coal and nuclear plants were still down.

Parts of North Texas are meanwhile bracing for yet another round of winter weather, with forecasters calling for anywhere from 1 to 6 inches in the region around Dallas through Thursday morning.

Power line companies, citing the ongoing directives from ERCOT to keep some parts of the grid offline, have warned customers that the prolonged outrages could continue for an extended period of time.

CenterPoint Energy told those without power in Houston on Tuesday to “be prepared to be without power for the duration of the generation shortage event which could last several more days.” Transmission companies in West, South and North Texas have echoed that warning.

ERCOT officials acknowledged Tuesday that the grid was unprepared for the intensity of the winter storm.

After the 2011 blackouts, grid managers worked with power companies on upgrades to winter storm protections, best practices and other processes that were supposed to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

“All of those were kind of geared around that 2011 level of detail, the severity of that storm,” Woodfin said. “This one’s kind of beyond what we saw in 2011.”

Magness, the ERCOT CEO, said he welcomed calls for investigations into the group’s handling of the situation.

“There will and should be a significant review of this event,” he said. “We’re happy to participate in that and cooperate and hopefully be very involved in it in whatever way we’re asked to.”

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