ERCOT officials tout grid progress

Brad Jones, interim president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, met with local officials Wednesday to explain how millions of Texans lost power in the middle of an unprecedented winter storm last year and what steps have been taken to avoid a repeat.

Although a winter storm in 1895 was colder than the storm that hit last February, it didn’t last nearly as long, Jones said.

In explaining what happened last year, Jones said Texas has a capacity of 84,000 megawatts of energy and during the week of the storm, the state lost 50,000 megawatts for a variety of reasons.

The freezing rain forced solar wind turbines to be shut down, piles of coal basically turned into granite, and the intank water used to cool a nuclear plant in South Texas froze up on the way into the plant, forcing the plant to shut down, Jones said.

“We (also) lost natural gas units, partly because of the natural gas supply went away…quite a few of them because something froze, some element froze up that they didn’t have protected, it didn’t have a heating coil on it or didn’t have a protective building around it or it didn’t have the right layer of insulation and the elements froze up and they had to turn them off,” Jones said.

When ERCOT began to get into trouble, Jones said they asked distributors to begin to shut down power to specific “feeders” on a rotating basis, expecting customers to be without power for an hour. Eventually the distributors informed ERCOT they had run out of “feeders” to turn off because 60% of customers are considered “critical” and are exempt from being turned off, including hospitals, fire departments and police departments.

As a result of being unable to turn off any more feeders, people went hours and sometimes days without power, he said.

And, when the power was turned back on, systems ended up crashing because they were overloaded, Jones said. Hundreds of homeowners quickly wanted to bring their houses to 68 degrees from 30-40 degrees.

Communication was also problematic during the crisis, Jones said.

“The communications got completely confused. Retail electric providers and distribution providers were all sending a different message and ERCOT had a different message and everyone was kind of crossing over each other when trying to talk to the public and so the public was left in a horrible position,” Jones said.

If residents had known their power wasn’t going to rotate back on, they could have made different decisions, including leaving their homes, he said.

Since the storm, Jones said efforts have been made to weatherize generators to a greater degree than they have been in the past.

“The legislature was in session when the winter storm happened and they immediately got on the issue. They gave us some authority we didn’t have before and to the public utility commission that we work with closely. The public utility commission set rules for how generators must now be weatherized, how they must now prepare for this type of storm. They gave us the authority as ERCOT to go out and inspect these generators and if they fail, they pay a $1 million fine per day.”

In addition, Jones said distributors have been tasked with trying to find other customers they can shut off when needed, perhaps those that are located near hospitals and other entities that can’t have their power turned off.

ERCOT is also working with the state and distributors on improving communications, he said. ERCOT has doubled its communication team and has contracted with a crisis communications team that can bring on 20-25 people in another emergency situation.

In addition, people from across the industry have gathered during mock situations to talk through issues and coordinate and they’ve also been meeting with the state’s emergency management department, Jones said. The Texas Department of Transportation is also working on a system that would work like Amber Alerts.

As for the future of Texas electricity, Jones said “it’s fantastic.”

“We are a state that has abundant winds, abundant solar resources and the federal government is spending a lot of subsidies for those resources which means developers want to come to Texas, great business climate, low taxes, low cost labor,” Jones said. “They get the money from the feds to come here and locate. What that means for Texas is we get lower energy prices than what we deserve because the feds are paying a good portion for wind and solar to come to our state and we like that.”

Of the 124,000 megawatt capacity available during the summers in Texas, Jones said 10,000 megawatts comes from solar, up from 3,000 megawatts last summer. Within two years it’ll be up to 20,000.

Roughly 60,000 megawatts comes from gas, 35,000 from wind, 10,000 from coal and 5,000 from nuclear, he said.

After the presentation, Odessa Mayor Javier Joven said he wanted citizens to hear from Jones about what happened.

Also, echoing comments made by Midland Mayor Patrick Payton during the presentation, Joven said he is “uneasy” the federal government continues to push renewable energy, which he said many view as unreliable.

“I want to maintain the dominance of coal, natural gas and nuclear because it is dependable, but the thing is, if you heard the presentation today, you heard the electricity portion. We’re going up to 20% on the wind and solar where we’re at about 46% in gas. To get there you have to take away from one source and that one source is natural gas,” Joven said.

Joven said voters need to make sure those they elect understand the importance of natural gas, coal and nuclear.

“They have to understand that we as West Texans want reliable energy and we know in West Texas it’s gas, coal and nuclear and if they aren’t in line with that principle, then you need to question them,” he said.